Violent Midwest storms kill 31, death toll could rise
Saturday , March 03, 2012 - 7:13 AM
HENRYVILLE, Ind.-- A string of violent storms scratched away small towns in Indiana and cut off rural communities in Kentucky as an early-season tornado outbreak killed more than 30 people, and the death toll rose as daylight broke on Saturday's search for survivors.
Massive thunderstorms, predicted by forecasters for days, threw off dozens of tornadoes as they raced Friday from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. Twisters that crushed entire blocks of homes knocked out cellphones and landlines alike, ripped power lines from broken poles and tossed cars, school buses and tractor-trailers onto roadways made impassable by debris.
Weather that put millions of people at risk Friday killed 31, but both the scale of the devastation and the breadth of the storms made an immediate assessment of the havoc's full extent all but impossible.
In Kentucky, the National Guard and state police headed out to search wreckage for an unknown number of missing. In Indiana, authorities searched dark county roads connecting rural communities that officials said "are completely gone."
For those still in the town of about 2,000 north of Louisville, Ky., the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders, that meant walking down littered streets with shopping carts full of water and food, handing it out to anyone in need. Hundreds of firefighters and police zipped around a town where few recognizable structures remained; all of Henryville's schools were destroyed.
"It's all gone," resident Andy Bell said as he guarded a friend's demolished service garage, not far from where a school bus stuck out from the side of a restaurant and a parking lot where a small classroom chair jutted from a car window.
"It was beautiful," he said, looking around. "And now it's just gone. I mean, gone."
Susie Renner, 54, said she saw two tornadoes barreling down on Henryville within minutes of each other. The first was brown from being filled with debris; the second was black.
"I'm a storm chaser," Renner said, "and I have never been this frightened before."
Friday's outbreak came two days after an earlier round of storms killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, and forecasters at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center had said the day would be one of a handful this year that warranted its highest risk level. By 10 p.m., the weather service had issued 269 tornado warnings. Only 189 warnings were issued in all of February.
"We knew this was coming. We were watching the weather like everyone else," said Clark County, Ind., Sheriff Danny Rodden. "This was the worst case scenario. There's no way you can prepare for something like this."
A total of 14 people were reported killed in Indiana, including four in Chelsea, where a man, woman and their 4-year-old great-grandchild died in one house. Tony Williams, owner of the Chelsea General Store, said the child and mother were huddled in a basement when the storm hit and sucked the 4-year-old out her hands. The mother survived, but her 70-year-old grandparents were upstairs; both died.
"They found them in the field, back behind the house," Williams said.
Two people also died further north in Holton, where it appeared a tornado cut a diagonal swath down the town's tiny main drag, demolishing a cinderblock gas station in one spot and leaving a tiny white church intact down the road. Officials also confirmed three deaths in nearby Scott County and another four in Washington County further west.
"We are going to continue to hit every county road that we know of that there are homes on and search those homes," said Indiana State Police Sgt. Jerry Goodin. "We have whole communities and whole neighborhoods that are completely gone. We've had a terrible, terrible tragedy here."
The death toll stood rose to at least 14 in Kentucky, which sent both National Guard troops and Kentucky State Police troopers along with a rescue team into counties about an area an hour west of Lexington.
In West Liberty, Ky., Stephen Burt heard the twister coming and pulled his 23-year-old daughter to safety, just before the tornado destroyed the second story of the family's home.
"I held onto her and made it to the center of the house, to a closet," Burt said. "I pushed her into the closet, and I felt like I was getting sand-blasted on my back."
Endre Samu, public affairs office Kentucky State Police in Morehead, said three people were dead in West Liberty and at least 75 were injured.
"This town is totally destroyed," he said.
Kentucky Emergency Management spokesman Buddy Rogers said officials were having difficulty getting into the area to confirm the damage.
"We can't even get into some of these counties," he said Friday night. "The power is out, phones are out, roads are blocked and now it's dark, which complicates things."
Tornadoes were reported in at least six Ohio cities and towns, including the village of Moscow, where a council member found dead in her home was one of at least three people killed in the state. Several dozen homes were damaged, some stripped down to their foundations, and the Clermont County commissioners called a state of emergency for the first time in 15 years.
Emergency officials in Lee County, Va., said damage from a possible tornado left at least a two-to three-mile path of destruction that may reach far into Tennessee, and damage reports were expected to increase come daylight.
"We don't know. We can't get down there," said Emergency Management Director Jason Crabtree said of areas stretching south of the Virginia line. "This thing may be eight to 10 miles long."
Associated Press writers Dylan T. Lovan and Bruce Schreiner in Henryville and Beth Campbell in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.