Tornadoes kill at least 35

V By Robert E. Pierre

violent storms, including more than 70 tornadoes, blew across the nation early Monday, slicing through small towns, splintering buildings and trees, twirling semi-trucks and cars and killing at least 35 people in a swath that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.

Starting late Saturday, the storms’ fury mounted and swept from Louisiana, through Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Ohio into Pennsylvania. By early Monday morning, the winds had demolished more than half of the two dozen houses that made up Mossy Grove, Tenn., a hamlet 40 miles west of Knoxville. Officials estimated more than a third of the structures were destroyed in Carbon Hill, Ala., a town of 2,071 people northwest of Birmingham.

The deaths were most numerous in Tennessee where 16 people died, including seven in Mossy Grove. Another 12 were killed in Alabama, including seven in Carbon Hill. Five died in Ohio and one each in Mississippi and Pennsylvania. More than 200 people were injured.

It was the deadliest swarm of tornadoes the nation has suffered since 1999 when at least 70 twisters killed more than 45 people over two days in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Some places had only a few minutes notice before the tornadoes swirled into town. In Van Wert, Ohio that was just enough time to save dozens of people at the local movie theater. A manager heard a weather report on the radio as showings of “The Santa Clause 2” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” were ending and herded customers into hallways and restrooms–three cars blew into the theater and the roof collapsed on the blue-cushioned seats.

“It wiped out three factories,” said Larry Blakeley, 53, who lives about two miles from the where the tornado touched down in Van Wert. “We had high winds and lightning. There are police cars and national guard and you can’t get close to where it happened.”

The hardest hit section in Tennessee included a five-mile stretch of Morgan County, which includes Mossy Grove. Rescuers spent Monday combing through the wreckage.

As the day ended, dozens of people were still missing. Local radio stations read the names of the missing over the airways and ask them to contact authorities if they heard their names. In some areas, phone calls on the lines that were working were so jammed that calls were not going through. Authorities were confident that most people had fled their homes to safety and would be accounted for soon. Still, the search was complicated by the devastation

“Emergency crews are out searching for people,” said Amy Smith, a police dispatcher in nearby Oliver Springs. But she added, “The phone lines are down. They’re without electric. It’s going to be that way for a while.”

Officials from the Red Cross and emergency management teams spread out to assess the damage, and to provide those left homeless with food and shelter.

In Alabama, Gov. Don Siegelman said it would take residents a long time to recover.

“It’s like somebody wrapped up sticks of dynamite and just blew these homes into little tiny pieces,” Siegelman told reporters as he toured affected areas. “Clearly we’ve got to get money to these communities. But it’s not so much the financial help at this point but the but the spiritual help that they need. We’re going to do everything we can to get their lives, their homes back together.”

Winds hit an estimated 140 mph in Tennessee with torrential rain and golf-ball-sized hail. The volatile weather was caused by unseasonably high temperatures, followed by a cold front pushing down from the north, creating optimal conditions for tornadoes, said Mark Linhares, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Birmingham. The breadth of the storms was reminiscent of a similar tornado outbreak in November 1992 when a string of tornados sprang up in Texas and moved northeast. Ninety-four tornados resulted and 26 people were killed, 15 of them in Mississippi. But such widespread outbreaks are not common.

In Alabama, nine people died in Walker County as a line of thunderstorms packing high winds and spinning off tornadoes rolled through the northern part of the state. In Georgia, heavy damage was reported near the town of Tate, about 45 miles north of Atlanta.

In Tennessee, the tornadoes came in two waves. Late Saturday and early Sunday, twisters skipped across western and middle Tennessee, killing three people. On Sunday night another line of storms crossed the state–this time south and east of Nashville.

Two people, including a 10-year-old boy, were killed and 15 people were injured in Coffee County when two mobile home parks, three houses and a church were damaged near Manchester, about 60 miles southeast of Nashville, on Sunday night.