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Death Toll Mounts As Fierce Storms Batter South

In the aftermath of a severe tornado, Kelly Giddens (R) helps University of A...

Photo by Jessica McGowan / Getty Images

Above: In the aftermath of a severe tornado, Kelly Giddens (R) helps University of Alabama law student Daniel Hinton remove belongings from his destroyed home in the Cedar Crest neighborhood on April 28, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Dozens of tornadoes spawned by a powerful storm system wiped out entire towns across a wide swath of the South, killing at least 194 people, and officials said Thursday they expect the death toll to rise.

Special Feature Track The Storms

NOAA's National Weather Tracker

Nearly two-thirds of the deaths were in Alabama. The state emergency management agency said early Thursday it had confirmed 128 deaths, up from at least 61 earlier.

"We expect that toll, unfortunately, to rise," Gov. Robert Bentley told ABC's Good Morning America.

Mississippi officials reported 32 dead in that state, and Tennessee raised its report to 15. Another 11 were killed in Georgia and eight in Virginia.

The fierce storms Wednesday spawned tornadoes and winds that wiped out homes and businesses, forced a nuclear power plant to use backup generators and prompted the evacuation of a National Weather Service office.

The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports around the regions, including 66 in Alabama and 38 in Mississippi.

The center's Rich Thompson said that's more tornadoes than have been seen in decades. "It's going to take many days, perhaps even a couple of weeks, for the National Weather Service to sort out all the details," he said. And there could be more storms in the offing.

"We still have occasional damaging wind and tornado threat all the way from central New York and eastern Pennsylvania, southward through central Virginia into the Carolinas and back into east central Georgia and even storms back into the Florida panhandle and southwest Georgia," Thompson said.

'A Very, Very Dangerous Situation'

The bad weather was not a surprise in Alabama. Some schools canceled classes Wednesday morning, government offices closed early, and newspapers across the state had warned of the possibility of severe afternoon storms. Still, even TV forecasters were shocked by what showed up. One declared, "This is a very, very dangerous situation," and advised listeners, "Take our warning right now. ... My God, folks, this is a violent tornado. God, it's huge."

Right around the 5 p.m. rush hour, the massive tornado, caught on video by a news camera on a tower, barreled through Tuscaloosa. Estimated to be at least a mile wide, it stayed on the ground for more than two hours. It just missed the University of Alabama campus but flattened several neighborhoods where students live and destroyed dozens of businesses.

The city's police and other emergency services were devastated, the mayor said, and at least 15 people were killed and about 100 were in a single hospital.

By nightfall, the city of more than 83,000 was dark. Roads were impassable. Signs were blown down in front of restaurants, businesses were unrecognizable and sirens wailed off and on. Debris littered the streets and sidewalks.

"What we faced today was massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time," Mayor Walter Maddox said.

Alabama Public Radio's Pat Duggins reported "trees down everywhere, trees uprooted, snapped, cars tossed around like toys."

"It's a scene of utter devastation — in certain portions of town. But in other portions, the lights are on and everything looks fine. The storm simply chose certain areas to strike, and others it left alone," Duggins said.

Injured Swarm Hospital; Newly Homeless Head To Shelters

At Tuscaloosa's main hospital, DCH, dozens of patients lined the corridors waiting for treatment. The hospital, which had to operate on backup power, had as many as 2,000 doctors and nurses working on the wounded.

"We do a lot to prepare. But I don't know how you prepare for anything of this magnitude," said Patrice Jones, the chief nurse at DCH.

As quickly as doctors treated the injured, waves of new patients flooded in, some with serious injuries and others with small cuts. DCH spokesman Brad Fisher said that created a new problem. "We've had so many folks and clearing them out and then they have no place to get home to and no way to get there if they did," he said.

People were lined outside the hospital waiting for buses to take them to shelters that opened to house the newly homeless, a scene that was common across north central Alabama.

After the tornado left Tuscaloosa, it slammed into Pleasant Grove. There was so much debris on the streets there, rescuers had to hand-carry their equipment and walk into the hardest hit areas. The smell of natural gas floated through the air.

Lynn Crawley grew up in Pleasant Grove. When she heard the storm coming, she ran next-door to her mom's house and huddled with her. The tornado obliterated the roof and walls. Only the hallway was left standing — the hallway they had taken cover in.

"It finally got quiet and took us a while to realize and was able to move and able to kind of pull ourselves out from under it," Crawley said. "The roof was gone. Everything was like, wow. It was raining. It was an awful experience."

Emergency Declarations In Multiple States

The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out. Governors in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia each issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.

President Obama said he had spoken with Alabama Gov. Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance, including search and rescue assets. About 1,400 National Guard soldiers were being deployed around the state.

"Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation, and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster," Obama said in a statement.

Storms also struck Birmingham, Ala., felling numerous trees that impeded emergency responders and those trying to leave hard-hit areas. Surrounding Jefferson County reported 11 deaths; another hard-hit area was Walker County in the far northwest part of the state with at least eight deaths. The rest of the deaths were scattered around northern Alabama.

The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant about 30 miles west of Huntsville lost offsite power. The Tennessee Valley Authority-owned plant had to use seven diesel generators to power the plant's three units. The safety systems operated as needed and the emergency event was classified as the lowest of four levels, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of severe storms and had to take shelter in a reinforced steel room, turning over monitoring duties to a sister office in Jackson, Miss. Meteorologists saw multiple wall clouds, which sometimes spawn tornadoes, and decided to take cover, but the building wasn't damaged.

"We have to take shelter just like the rest of the people," said meteorologist Chelly Amin, who wasn't at the office at the time but spoke with colleagues about the situation.

She said the extent of the damage statewide is still unknown.

"I really think with the rising of the sun, we'll see the full extent of this," she said.

NPR's Russell Lewis and Alabama Public Radio's Pat Duggins reported from Tuscaloosa, Ala., for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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