Death Tornado Destroys Supplies of Gas, Water, Electricity

VIDEO: Ryan Owens report on tornados in Vilonia, Arkansas.
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Lethal tornadoes that killed more than 300 people in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and three other southern states also have destroyed or damaged power plants, power lines, gas stations and water supplies.

More than 1 million people are without electricity. Thousands are homeless or without fuel or safe drinking water. Three nuclear power plants have shut down and are offline.

In hard-hit Tuscaloosa, where 36 or more are dead, President Obama and the first lady earlier today toured the disaster area. Eastern Tuscaloosa is running out of water. The mayor's office ordered residents to conserve and to boil their tap water before drinking it, until the city's water pressure can be fully restored.

Natural gas supplier Alagasco said in an announcement that as of Thursday night it had responded to more than 1,800 calls from customers reporting leaks. The company suspended service to many customers until leaks can be repaired. Some 2,000 Tuscaloosa gas customers have been affected.

Survivors mobbed grocery stores and gasoline stations. An Exxon station ran out of gas by mid-morning Thursday. Other stations saw long lines of cars waiting for their pumps. Some shut because of damage or put up signs announcing they were closed. "People are panicking, buying up everything," convenience store manager Douglas Fletcher told the Tuscaloosa News. He said the panic was unnecessary—that the city still had plenty of gasoline.

Clay Ingram, public relations director for the AAA of Alabama, agrees: "Gasoline availability has improved dramatically today with the return of electrical service to a big portion of the affected areas, including Tuscaloosa, Decatur, Cullman and north Birmingham," he said in an e-mail. "Huntsville is still struggling with power outages. Many gas stations in the affected areas have acquired portable generators in order to be able to use the gas pumps and this has helped in a big way."

The storm badly damaged Tennessee Valley Authority power lines and transmission towers throughout the region. More than 120 power poles or steel structures were damaged, according to TVA. As of Friday morning, emergency crews had repaired and returned to service 14 lines out of 70 affected. Some 612,000 homes and businesses still remain without electricity.

At TVA's Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, all three units of the 3,274-megawatt facility remain shut down, after storms damaged electric lines supplying energy to their reactors. Emergency diesel generators automatically kicked in, resupplying the loss. The reactors are of similar design to the stricken reactors at Fukushima, Japan, where emergency diesel generators failed, precipitating the nuclear crisis that has persisted there since March11.

The three Browns Ferry reactors have nearly as much radioactive fuel between them as do Fukushima's six reactors. Browns Ferry—second biggest supplier of nuclear power in the United States—may remain offline for weeks, or until transmission lines taking power from it to surrounding areas are repaired. As a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Reuters, "The plant can't produce power if that power doesn't have any place to go."

Browns Ferry has suffered a variety of accidents, including a bad fire in 1975 and a steam leak in 2008. In the present incident, no leakage of any kind has been reported.

In one part of Tuscaloosa, drug stores, shopping malls, dry cleaners, and other commercial establishments were flattened. A nearby coal mine also suffered damage. Elsewhere in the region, 200 chicken houses holding 4 million chickens were destroyed.

Factories in the region have been closed and manufacturing suspended at plants belonging to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Mercedes and Toyota.

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