A severe rash of wicked weekend weather has made this tornado season one of the deadliest in a decade.
Sixty-six tornadoes created havoc from the Midwest to the East Coast this weekend, resulting in at least 22 deaths and pushing the season's fatality total to 97 deaths, the most since the 1998 tornado season.
The tornado period is in the midst of its peak activity time, which is between March and May. So far, 665 tornadoes have been reported or observed this season.
And if the reported 66 twisters that funneled their way through the country's heartland this weekend are any indication, 2008 could be one of the busiest and deadliest years in history. The record for tornado-related deaths in a year came in 1998, when 130 people were killed.
"I've noticed a disturbing trend that storms can happen more abruptly," said veteran storm chaser Jim Reed. "Storms are more frequent. They are larger."
A terrifying twister ripped a church from its foundation on Mother's Day in Ahoskie, N.C., and 180,000 people in Georgia lost power because of the severe storm. Today, 80,000 still are waiting for power to be restored in the area.
Fifteen fatalities were reported in Missouri, and a host of videos captured footage of dangerous funnel clouds and tornadoes zigzagging their way through cities and towns, leaving behind destruction.
An Alabama surveillance camera captured cars flying like tin cans, and a storm chaser Saturday taped an EF4 twister that packed winds up to 175 mph.
One twister flattened the tiny town of Picher, Okla. Warnings sounded 13 minutes before the tornado hit, and resident John Hutchinson huddled with his family on the floor of a closet.
"I just wanted them to be OK," an emotional Hutchinson said. "I don't think you can get much closer and live."
Three people died when the twister hurled their car into a lagoon. One passenger in the car survived after being thrown from the vehicle.
Today, as the people of Picher sifted through shattered glass and splintered wood, they faced the reality that their tornado-ravaged town may not be rebuilt. Picher already had waste that turned it into an environmental disaster, and the state was issuing buyouts to residents. The clean-up effort has stretched from Missouri to Georgia to North Carolina.
Many families have moved away to escape lead pollution, taking advantage of the state and federal buyouts in recent years. Piles of mine waste, or chat, have long towered over the town across a highway from the devastated neighborhood. Those waste piles are now peppered with debris from homes flattened by the tornado.
In Picher, the EPA is now testing the air and soil for lead, fearing the twister may have worsened contamination from underground mines.
The tornado, which killed seven people in the town, may be the ultimate incentive for the 800 or so remaining residents who have been reluctant to leave, John Sparkman, head of the local housing authority, told The Associated Press.
"I think people probably have had enough," he said. "There's just nothing to build back to anymore."
Few can remember a tornado season this extreme. Meteorologists say changes in the jet stream are partly to blame. In recent months, the stream has dipped farther south, creating more volatility. Instead of flowing in a straight line, which would allow storms to pass quickly, the jet stream has snaked across the country, keeping violent weather locked in place.
"[This] has been a big year in large part because the atmosphere has simply just brought the ingredients together more often than normal," said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.