U.S. South storms death toll rises to 20

The death toll from powerful storms and tornadoes that have devastated parts of the U.S. South, toppling trees, smashing buildings and tearing up trailers, has climbed to at least 20.

'It's just been one catastrophe after another': Alabama emergency management head

An upended vehicle rests on a tree Friday after a tornado in Tushka, Okla. The U.S. South is suffering through its worst storm this season.

The death toll from powerful storms and tornadoes that have devastated parts of the U.S. South, toppling trees, smashing buildings and tearing up trailers, rose to at least 20 late Saturday.

North Carolina officials said at least three people were killed by storms that rampaged across the state, adding to the 17 killed in other states.

Seven deaths were reported in Alabama, including a man killed when the storm tossed a mobile home nearly across a state highway.

In the deadliest storm of the season, three adult family members were killed around 11 p.m. Friday when a tornado ripped through homes in the Boone's Chapel community, north of the Alabama capital of Montgomery, said Autauga County Chief Deputy Sheriff Joe Sedinger.

Two side-by-side trailers were torn from their foundations and tossed into nearby woods. On Saturday morning, wooden steps and flowerbeds were all that remained where one mobile home had stood.

"The trailer was anchored down and the anchors are gone," Sedinger said. "But the steps are still there and the blooms are still on the flowers."

Seven people were hurt in the storm, including a firefighter injured during the emergency response, Sedinger said.

Another three deaths were reported early Saturday in Washington County in southern Alabama, said Yasamie Richardson, spokeswoman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

Don Faulkner, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, estimated mobile homes make up around 40 per cent of the houses in the area of Washington County where the storm hit.

Richardson didn't immediately have details on the people killed there or where they were living. The system had already destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, businesses and churches Friday afternoon in Mississippi, where crews worked to clear roads, find shelter for displaced families and restore power.

Mobile homes tossed

In Marengo County in west-central Alabama, four separate tornadoes hit over the span of about five to six hours, emergency management director Kevin McKinney said.

"They weren't simultaneous, they were back to back," he said.

The mobile home that had been tossed was a pile of rubble, along with another 30 homes or businesses that were destroyed, McKinney said. Four people had minor injuries.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency for the entire state, and the first race of a busy weekend at the Talladega Superspeedway was postponed until Saturday morning.

A six-year-old boy was killed in this house on Friday near Bald Knob, Ark., when a tree was blown over. ((Warren Watkins/Daily Citizen/Associated Press))
The storms began late Thursday in Oklahoma, where at least five tornadoes touched down and two people were killed. The system then pushed into Arkansas, killing seven more. Dozens of others were hurt.

By midday Friday, the storms had hit Tennessee, Louisiana and later Georgia.

At least three twisters touched down in Mississippi, where a state of emergency was declared in 14 counties, causing widespread damage but only one serious injury.

The hardest hit was Clinton, a city of about 26,000 people just west of Jackson, the state capital. At least seven people were taken by ambulance to hospitals with injuries.

Debra Zepponi, 50, looked at her roof damage and was thankful for what she didn't lose. Her Yorkshire-Maltese mix dog Bailey was not hurt, and her mother's favorite magnolia tree in the yard was the only one left standing.

"I'm glad it didn't get her tree," said Zepponi, whose mother died a few years ago.

In western Alabama, there was massive destruction in the small town of Geiger. An elderly woman was pinned down by her ceiling that had collapsed, but she was rescued without getting hurt, said Margaret A. Bishop-Gulley, Sumter County's emergency management director.

Officials were even having difficulty setting up shelters.

A school didn't have any power and the alternate site, a community centre, had just one generator that could only light up half of the building.

"It's just been one catastrophe after another," she said.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said he had never seen the state suffer so many deaths from straight-line winds — sudden, violent downbursts that struck with hurricane force in the middle of the night. Typically, tornadoes and floods cause most of Arkansas storm-related fatalities.

At Crystal Springs, lightning split a tree that fell into a home, killing an 18-month-old girl and her father as they slept. In Little Rock, winds knocked a tree into a home, killing a woman and her 8-year-old son in his bed.

In the Arkansas town of Bald Knob, a six-year-old boy died when the top of a tree crashed through his home while he was sleeping.

'It's hard to deal with'

The worst damage in Oklahoma was in the small town of Tushka, where residents wondered what would become of their community after a twister damaged or destroyed nearly every home along the two main streets. The only school, a collection of buildings housing grades kindergarten to 12,  was all but gone.

"It's hard to deal with because we're a small community with limited resources. It's hard to do the cleanup," Mayor Brickie Griffin said.

Two people were killed and at least 25 hurt as the tornado plowed through the town of 350 before dawn. At least a dozen homes and businesses were destroyed.

Stacy George, who lives across the street from the school, slowly recovered items from the rubble of her home, which had shattered windows and a collapsed roof. A pickup truck had been blown into the side of the house. But George's husband and 20-month-old son survived.

"We're basically starting over," she said, laying out clothes, cowboy boots, a penny jar, a lamp and a chair in her driveway.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for 26 counties affected by the storm.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., an apparent tornado damaged a motel and struck an oil change business, blowing the plastic out of large signs. Roads were crisscrossed with power poles and trees.

"It was a dark funnel coming down," said Sam Packwood, who works at Bama Mini Storage in Tuscaloosa. "The sirens went off and all; it was pretty exciting for 20 or 30 minutes. I hope nobody got hurt."