More than 50 tornadoes rampaged through the South overnight, leaving a trail of devastation and despair across seven states and killing at least 54 people.
The rare winter occurrence became one of the deadliest storms in history for the month of February, and the onslaught wasn't over. By early this morning, New Orleans, Alabama and Georgia were all under a tornado warning, as the storm moved menacingly eastward.
The rash of twisters, spawned by violent thunderstorms, tore through seven states, including Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. They ripped open a shopping mall, demolished a pair of college dormitories, flung trees, trailers and cars around like toys, crushed homes and triggered a spectacular fire at a natural gas pumping station.
Pope County, Ark., tornado victims can call the following number to check on family members or to let others know they're OK: (479) 968-1075.
The tiny town of Atkins, Ark., was hit particularly hard.
Among the victims was a couple and their 11-year-old. The family died when their home "took a direct hit" from the storm, Pope County coroner Leonard Krout said. "Neighbors and friends who were there said, 'There used to be a home there,"' Krout said..
Rescuers felt their way in the dark as they went through shattered homes in the little town of 3,000 near the Arkansas River. Around them, power lines snaked along streets and a deep-orange pickup truck rested on its side. A navy-blue Mustang with a demolished front end was marked with spray paint to show it had been searched.
Outside one damaged home, horses whinnied in the darkness, looking up only when a flashlight reached their eyes. A ranch home stood unscathed across the street from a concrete slab that had supported the house where the family of three died.
"It could bust your eardrums. It was just so loud," said Atkins resident Johnnie Martin, who huddled his family into the bathroom when he saw the tornado approach.
Seavia Dixon, whose Atkins home was demolished, stood this morning in her yard, holding muddy baby pictures of her son, who is now a 20-year-old soldier in Iraq. Only a concrete slab was left from the home.
The family's brand-new white pickup truck was upside down, about 150 yards from where it had been parked before the storm. Another pickup truck the family owned sat crumpled about 50 feet from the slab.
"You know, it's just material things," Dixon said, her voice breaking. "We can replace them. We were just lucky to survive."
Pope County Sheriff Jay Winters said the town was somewhat prepared for the twister because of a recent scare.
"Unfortunately, we had a tornado about three, four weeks ago in Appleton, which is north of here. We lost a life. I think the area — the residents — were much more prepared, and the county judge set our sirens [off early]," Winters said on "Good Morning America" today.
A total of 13 people died in Arkansas.
In Tennessee, tornadoes were blamed for at least 30 deaths.
Ray Story tried to get his 70-year-old brother, Bill Clark, to a hospital after the storms leveled his mobile home in Macon County, Tenn. Clark died as Story and his wife tried to navigate debris-strewn roads in their pickup truck, they said.
"He never had a chance," Ray Story's wife, Nova Story, said. "I looked him right in the eye and he died right there in front of me."
And in Jackson, Tenn., rescuers had to dig students out from the wreckage of Union University's damaged dorms. A school spokesman said eight students had been trapped, but none was injured seriously. More than 50 students were taken to hospitals.
Tim Ellsworth, the school's news director, said the dorms had been "reduced to piles of rubble. I know we had students huddled in the bathrooms."
"A couple of buildings have almost completely collapsed and the roof of Jennings Hall is almost completely gone," he said.
A tornado's direct hit on a natural gas pumping station outside of Nashville triggered a spectacular fire. Power was knocked out in the nearby area and the hospital was running on generators. Only the emergency room had lights on.
In Memphis, high winds collapsed the roof of a Sears store at a mall. Debris that included bricks and air-conditioning units was scattered on the parking lot, where about two dozen vehicles were damaged.
A few people north of the mall took shelter under a bridge and were washed away, but they were pulled out of the Wolf River with only scrapes, said Steve Cole of the Memphis Police Department.
An additional seven people died in Kentucky and four more in Alabama, officials said.
Across the tornadoes' paths, emergency workers scrambled to find survivors and state officials said the efforts had just begun.
"Many of our citizens will be hurting and many will be hurting for days to come," one Tennessee official said.
Daylight should aid the searches and allow them to get into more places to reach victims along with survivors.
The total monetary tally has yet to be determined, but with all the structural damage the storm could be costly.