Death Toll Rises from Severe Weather Outbreak - WVVA TV Bluefield Beckley WV News, Weather and Sports

Death Toll Rises from Severe Weather Outbreak

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(AP Photo/Danny Johnston). People walk between two destroyed houses in Mayflower, Ark., Monday, April 28, 2014, after a tornado struck the town late Sunday. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston). People walk between two destroyed houses in Mayflower, Ark., Monday, April 28, 2014, after a tornado struck the town late Sunday.
(AP Photo/Danny Johnston). A row of lightly damages houses, top, face destroyed homes in a Vilonia, Ark., neighborhood Monday, April 28, 2014 after a tornado struck the town late Sunday, killing at least 16 people. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston). A row of lightly damages houses, top, face destroyed homes in a Vilonia, Ark., neighborhood Monday, April 28, 2014 after a tornado struck the town late Sunday, killing at least 16 people.
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). The remains of a home damaged by a tornado Sunday evening stands in Baxter Springs, Kan., Monday, April 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). The remains of a home damaged by a tornado Sunday evening stands in Baxter Springs, Kan., Monday, April 28, 2014.
(AP Photo/Danny Johnston) (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Tornadoes flattened homes and businesses, flipped trucks over on highways and bent telephone poles into 45-degree angles as they barreled through the South on Monday, killing three people and unleashing severe thunderstorms, damaging hail and flash floods.

Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi, and thousands more hunkered down in basements and shelters as The National Weather Service issued watches and warnings for more tornadoes late Monday night.

Weather satellites from space showed tumultuous clouds arcing across much of the South.

The system is the latest onslaught of severe weather a day after a half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the suburbs of Little Rock, Ark., killing at least 15. Tornadoes also killed one person each in Oklahoma and Iowa on Sunday.

In northern Alabama, the coroner's office confirmed two deaths Monday in a twister that caused extensive damage west of the city of Athens, said Limestone County Emergency Director Rita White. White said more victims could be trapped in the wreckage of damaged buildings, but rescuers could not reach some areas because of downed power lines.

Separately, Limestone Commissioner Bill Latimer said he received reports of four deaths in the county from one of his workers. Neither the governor's office nor state emergency officials could immediately confirm those deaths.

In Mississippi, a woman died Monday when her car either hydroplaned or blew off a road during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo, said Lee County Coroner Carolyn Gillentine Green.

In Tupelo, a community of about 35,000 in northeastern Mississippi, every building in a two-block area south of U.S. Highway 78 had suffered damage, officials told a reporter on the scene. Some buildings had their roofs sheared off, while power lines had been knocked down completely or bent at 45-degree angles. Road crews were using heavy machinery to clear off other streets.

The Northeast Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo had received 30 patients as of Monday night, four of whom were being admitted with non-life-threatening injuries, said center spokeswoman Deborah Pugh. Pugh said the other 26 patients were treated for minor injuries and released.

Mississippi Republican Sen. Giles Ward huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their 19-year-old dog Monday as a tornado destroyed his two-story brick house and flipped his son-in-law's SUV upside down onto the patio in Louisville, seat of Winston County and home to about 6,600.

"For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable," Ward said. "It's about as awful as anything we've gone through."

He estimated that 30 houses in his neighborhood, Jordan Circle, were either destroyed or heavily damaged. After the storm had passed, Ward and his family went to a neighbor's home where 19 people had waited out the tornado in a basement. He said six people were reported trapped in a basement in another home in the subdivision.

Altogether, 45 people had been injured in Louisville but no deaths had been reported, said Jack Mazurak (MAZ-er-ak), a spokesman for the Jackson-based University of Mississippi Medical Center, designated communications command post for disasters.

The tornado in Louisville caused water damage and carved holes in the roof of the Winston Medical Center, Mazurak said. There were about 15 patients in hospital rooms and eight or nine in the emergency room, where evacuations were underway, Mazurak said.

"We thought we were going to be OK then a guy came in and said, 'It's here right now,'" said Dr. Michael Henry, head of the emergency room. "Then boom ... it blew through."

Residents and business owners were not the only ones seriously rattled by the tornadoes.

NBC affiliate WTVA-TV chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan in Tupelo, Miss., was reporting live on the severe weather about 3 p.m. when he realized the twister was coming close enough that maybe he and his staff should abandon the television studio.

"This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak. And this could be deadly," he said in a video widely tweeted and broadcast on YouTube.

Moments later he adds, "A damaging tornado. On the ground. Right now."

The video then shows Laubhan peeking in from the side to see if he is still live on the air before yelling to staff off-camera to get down in the basement.

"Basement, now!" he yells, before disappearing off camera himself.

Later, the station tweeted, "We are safe here."

With the wind howling outside and rain blowing sideways, Monica Foster rode out a tornado warning with her two daughters, ages 10 and 12, inside a gas station near Fayette, Ala. One of the girls cried as the three huddled with a station employee in a storage area beside a walk-in cooler.

Foster, who was returning home to Lynn on rural roads after a funeral in Tuscaloosa, said she typically would have kept driving through the deluge.

"I wouldn't have pulled in if I didn't have the two girls," she said.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency Monday in advance of the storms, which sent emergency officials rushing to put plans in place.

In Memphis, Tenn., officials declared a state of emergency in a county southwest of Nashville because of flash flooding. Authorities urged people there to seek higher ground after several homes and some business were flooded in Maury County and school leaders worried that some school buses might not be able to get schoolchildren home over swamped roads.

The threat of dangerous weather jangled nerves a day after the three-year anniversary of a historic outbreak of more than 60 tornadoes that killed more than 250 people across Alabama on April 27, 2011.

George Grabryan, director of emergency management for Florence and Lauderdale County in northwest Alabama, said 16 shelters opened before storms even moved in and people were calling nervously with questions about the weather.

"There's a lot of sensitivity up here," Grabryan said. "I've got a stack of messages here from people, many of them new to the area, wanting to know where the closest shelters are."


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ATHENS, Ala. (AP) - Officials in northern Alabama say up to six deaths are being reported from a severe weather system blowing through the state and other areas of the South.

City of Athens spokeswoman Holly Hollman says that Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakeley has reported two deaths when a severe storm hit a mobile home park west of Athens.

Blakeley was in a meeting with county Emergency Management Agency officials and couldn't come to the phone Monday evening to provide details.

Also, Limestone County Commissioner Bill Latimer tells The Associated Press that four people are dead in his district southeast of Athens. He says he has not been to the scene and was told about the deaths by a county foreman.

The governor's office and emergency management say they can't immediately confirm the deaths.

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VILONIA, Ark. (AP) - The sky turned black as the funnel cloud closed in, and Maggie Caro rushed with her husband and two children to a community shelter at a Vilonia school, where they were among the last to get inside the fortified gym before the doors were shut.

"They were screaming, 'Run! Run! It's coming!'" Caro recalled.

And then all hell broke loose.

The half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the Little Rock suburbs Sunday evening, killing at least 15 people, flattening rows of homes, shredding cars along a highway and demolishing a brand-new school before it even had a chance to open.

Officials said the death toll could have been worse if residents hadn't piled into underground storm shelters and fortified safe rooms after listening to forecasts on TV and radio, getting cellphone alerts or calls or texts from loved ones, and hearing sirens blare through their neighborhoods.

Also on people's minds: memories of a weaker tornado that smashed through on April 25, 2011. It took nearly the same path and killed at least four people.

"You had people breaking down because they were reliving three years ago," Kimber Standridge said of the scene inside the community shelter, which she said was packed with perhaps more than 100 people.

Standridge and a friend had gathered up seven children they were watching and sped through the streets just minutes before the twister hit.

"When they shut the doors, we knew it was on us," Standridge said. "Everybody hunkered down. There were a lot of people doing prayer circles, holding hands and praying."

Caro and Standridge said the shelter was so solid they barely felt or heard the tornado.

It was among a rash of twisters and violent storms across the Midwest and South that killed 17 people in all on Sunday.

With forecasters warning of more of the same Monday across the South, at least three tornados flattened homes and businesses, flipped trucks over on highways and injured an unknown number of people in Mississippi and Alabama.

Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, population 3,800. Firefighters on Monday searched for anyone trapped amid the piles of splintered wood and belongings strewn across yards. Hospitals took in more than 100 patients.

The tornado that hit the town and nearby Mayflower was probably the nation's strongest so far this year on the 0-to-5 EF scale, with the potential to be at least an EF3, which means winds greater than 136 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hood said.

It wrecked cars and trucks along Interstate 40 north of Little Rock. Also among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this fall.

"It's amazing to me how wide it was," Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland said. "It was the loudest grinding noise I've ever heard."

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said officials didn't yet have a count of the missing. He said the dead included a woman who was in a safe room but was hit by debris that went through the door.

"Mother nature and tornadoes, sometimes you can't explain how that works," Beebe said.

Three people died when the tornado tore a Paron home down to the foundation. Emily Tittle, 17, said her family took shelter under the stairs of their two-story home before the twister ripped the walls away. She said her father, Rob Tittle; 20-year-old sister Tori and 14-year-old sister Rebekah were killed, and her six other siblings were taken to hospitals.

In Vilonia, Raella Faulkner and Bobby McElroy picked through their demolished home, searching for family photos and a bow-and-arrow kit belonging to McElroy's son. The two had taken refuge from the storm in an underground storm shelter about 10 feet from their home.

"We were going to get married. Now I guess we'll have to wait," McElroy said.

Homes in the South are frequently built on concrete slabs, without basements. Slabs are cheaper and easier, and the need to protect pipes from freezing by putting them below ground is not as great as it is in the North.

For storm shelters, many people in the South and other parts of Tornado Alley in the nation's midsection have holes dug into the sides of hills with a door attached to the front. But these tend to be in older homes.

Hall Sellers, 53, was in the Vilonia home he built a decade ago when the warnings grew more intense. He had been through plenty of storms, including the twister three years ago that damaged the house, but this time he and his wife scrambled across the street to another home that he owns, an older one with an old-fashioned storm cellar.

"I don't know," Sellers said. "I don't usually go to the cellar, but this just felt right this time."

A neighbor wasn't so lucky. Sellers said his body was found 300 yards away in a field.

"If I'd have known he was home, I would have gotten him into the cellar," Sellers said.

Sara Sutter, 23, was at her brother's home when the storm hit. When the home was built a year ago, the builder urged construction of a safe room. On Sunday, Sutter, her mother, father and brother huddled in the safe room until the twister passed.

"Building the safe room was a great decision," Sutter said.

A separate twister killed one person in Quapaw, Okla., on Sunday evening, then crossed into Kansas, where it destroyed more than 100 homes and businesses and injured 25 people in the city of Baxter Springs. A farm building collapsed in Iowa from either a tornado or powerful straight-line winds, killing one woman.

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