Severe weather in southern regions of the United States spawned dozens of tornadoes on April 27, damaging hundreds of properties and killing around 200 people in five states. The fatalities occurred in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia in what is being described as the worst tornado outbreak in the United States since 310 people were killed on April 3, 1974. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), the storms spawned more than 140 tornadoes across the region and brought strong winds, heavy rain and large hail to several areas on April 27. The severe weather spread from Texas to Georgia and is forecast to hit the Carolinas before moving further northeast. Several states suffered power outages and widespread property and infrastructure damage has been reported.
Several storm systems have battered states across southern regions of the United States during the second half of April, with severe weather being blamed for the deaths of 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi earlier this week. Significant damage at Missouri’s Lambert-St Louis International Airport also occurred during this time. The NWS said it has received preliminary reports of nearly 300 tornadoes since April 22. Severe weather also spawned more than 200 tornadoes in 14 southeastern states between April 14 and 16, damaging hundreds of properties and killing at least 45 people. According to the NWS, tornado activity so far in 2011 is running at record pace, with the adjusted number of tornadoes for the year already at 745. The recent spate of severe weather could also break the previous record for tornado activity during the month of April, which was set in 1974 when 267 tornadoes were recorded. Meteorologists said unseasonably warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are currently contributing to the high level of tornado activity.
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Reports said Alabama was worst hit by the latest storms. President Barack Obama has approved emergency aid for Alabama after at least 130 people were killed in 16 counties and around 1 million people were left without power. The Alabama Power Company said the number of power outages could rival those experienced after hurricanes Ivan and Katrina. The NWS said there had been preliminary reports of 66 tornadoes in Alabama alone, causing widespread damage and disruption. Northern and central regions of the state bore the brunt of the latest storms and Governor Robert Bentley said the severe weather left “major destruction” in the state. The city of Tuscaloosa was one of the hardest-hit areas in Alabama after a tornado, reportedly one mile wide, swept across the city, leaving severe damage in its wake and killing at least 36 people. Officials said the damage was compounded by the earlier storms, which allowed the new system to uproot weakened trees. One meteorologist described the tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa as possibly the “worst in Alabama’s history”. Reports said debris littered the streets of Tuscaloosa, with dozens of roads impassable and hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed. Mayor Walter Maddox told reporters the city faced “massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time”.
Witnesses also reported tornado touchdowns in Jefferson County, home to Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city. Birmingham Mayor William Bell said the damage trail in the city was around a mile wide, with northwestern areas particularly badly hit. Several people have been reported missing in Birmingham and hundreds more were injured. Further north, the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, located about 30 miles west of Huntsville, lost power and automatically shut down during the storm. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the safety systems at the Tennessee Valley Authority-owned plant operated as needed and the emergency event was classified as the lowest of four levels. The storms also forced the Tennessee Valley Authority to close three other nuclear power plants in Alabama and knocked out 11 high voltage power lines. Meanwhile, officials in Jefferson County reported 11 deaths, while eight people died in Walker County, another hard-hit area in the far northwest part of the state. About 2,000 National Guard soldiers have been deployed in Alabama to assist with rescue and clean-up operations.
Georgia was also badly hit by the severe weather, prompting Governor Nathan Deal to declare disaster areas in the four northwestern counties of Catoosa, Floyd, Dade and Walker. According to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, thirteen people were killed in Georgia, with seven fatalities reported in Catoosa County, Dade County and Spalding County. Several Georgian counties reported damage from possible tornadoes and officials said the town of Ringgold in Catoosa County was hit particularly hard. In Floyd County, emergency management officials said around 150 homes were damaged by the storms. Georgia Power reported that more than 50,000 people were left without power across the state.
Elsewhere, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia were also badly affected by the severe weather. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour issued a state of emergency after 32 people were killed across the state. Damage was reported in 50 counties and authorities said a possible tornado caused severe damage in Smithville (Monroe County). The NWS said it received more than 40 preliminary reports of tornado touch downs in Mississippi. The severe weather also hit parts of Tennessee and Virginia. Officials in Tennessee said 16 people were killed in the state while an additional eight victims were reported in Virginia.
The NWS outlook for today calls for the potential for storms to continue along the East Coast as the front pushes off into the Atlantic. The overall “slight” threat level is significantly reduced in comparison to yesterday’s “high” risk which only occurs on a handful of days in an average year.
Sources: BBC News, Agence France Presse, Associated Press, Reuters News, CNN News
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