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Tornadoes' Death Toll Mounts; Rescue Efforts Underway

12:03 PM, Mar 4, 2012   |    comments
A car sits under a collapsed section of the Henryville school after a tornado ripped through town March 3, 2012 in Henryville, Indiana. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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HENRYVILLE, Ind. -- A tree crashed on top of his home, his garage blew away and his treasured 1969 Camaro was destroyed, but local glass installer David Geiger said Saturday that he's lucky.

"My house is still standing," explained Geiger, 50, who raced 20 miles home after Friday's tornado hammered this enclave of fewer than 2,000 residents to make sure his pregnant daughter was OK. She was.

The death toll rose to 38 Saturday from a series of tornadoes that churned through ten states Friday, leaving behind a path of death and destruction.

The latest count included 19 dead in Kentucky, 14 in Indiana, three in Ohio and one each in Alabama and Georgia. Tornadoes also were reported in Mississippi, Tennessee, Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Two days after a series of violent storms killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, Friday's massive thunderstorms threw off scores of tornadoes, crushing entire blocks of homes.

Gov. Mitch Daniels toured Henryville, about 35 miles from Louisville, on Saturday, calling the destruction "heartbreaking."

"We're not unfamiliar with mother nature's wrath here in Indiana but this is about as serious as I've seen," he said.

The storm outbreak has the potential to be the USA's largest ever recorded in March, Weather Channel severe storm expert Greg Forbes said. The Storm Prediction Center had received 99 reports of tornadoes from Friday across the central and southern USA.

Ten tornadoes were reported on Saturday in Georgia and Florida.

Only days into the month, this is already the USA's deadliest March for tornadoes since 1994, when 40 people were killed, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

The storm system was so strong and vast that as many as 34 million people were in the "high" or "moderate" risk categories for severe weather on Friday, says meteorologist Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

The air may be just cold enough that a weak storm moving across the Ohio Valley could bring some light snow Sunday into Monday across tornado-ravaged portions of southern Indiana, Kentucky and southern Ohio, according to Weather Channel meteorologist Chris Dolce.

Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, adjutant general of the Indiana Army National Guard, said about 250 soldiers have been activated to help with tornado relief in Southern Indiana.

In Henryville, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland "Colonel" Sanders, the storm cut a wide swath, destroying homes and businesses in its path.

The National Weather Service said one of the two tornadoes that went through the Henryville area had winds of about 175 mph, making it an EF4, the second highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. Debris from Henryville was found 68 miles away.

At Henryville High School, a skeleton building frame still stands, but that is all that can be seen from the school parking lot, save for a brick wall. Students were just being dismissed when the storm hit. Teachers and staff kept many inside in bathrooms, hoping to protect them from the storm. Indiana State Police Sgt. Jerry Goodin said no students were reported missing or injured.

When Debbie Stewart's boyfriend called to warn her he had spotted a giant tornado headed for their Henryville home, she and her daughter Kayla, 17, began frantically tossing things out of a closet so they could take shelter in it.

"It sounded awful. The walls were shaking," Debbie said. They stayed in the closet for just minutes, but "it seemed like hours." Most of the shingles were torn off their home's roof and hail pinched fist-sized holes in the green siding. But both were glad to be alive.

Debbie's boyfriend, Roger Lesnet, 59, said he was "as nervous as I've ever been" when he saw the approaching tornado. "The funnel cloud was like a big stovepipe hanging down," he said.

Yvonne Peterson, 60, a retired teacher and her husband George, 62, retired from a manufacturing job, were staying in their home here despite shattered glass doors and windows and a hole in the kitchen where a fallen tree broke through.

They rode out the storm in an interior closet. "We heard the proverbial loud train noise and knew we had to take cover," she said.

Nearby, Nick Shelton surveyed the wreckage that had been Henryville Auto Service. Shelton started the business last year, after 25 years as a mechanic. It was destroyed in five minutes.

"That's my lifelong dream right there," he said, "and it's on the ground."

When Cindy Cain saw the pile of rubble that had been her home for 18 years, she said, she cried. Then she vomited.

A day after the tornado, she had found a waterlogged photo of her dad, who died a decade ago, and one of her grandmother, who died 15 years ago. But she hadn't found the only possession that matters to her: a Russian blue cat named Kit Kit.

"I don't know what I'll do if I can't find Kit Kit," said Cain, who works in the kitchen of a hospital.

The tornado sheared two walls from Kris and Steve Stewart's house, leaving their living room and kitchen exposed and sending the rooms' contents flying. The couple and their son Cody, 12, were not home when the storm hit.

What happened was "unbelievable," said Kris, 30, "but you see some of the other damage, which is so much worse, and I feel blessed."

As Kris and Steve, 32, spoke, a FEMA search and rescue team stopped by to ask if everyone in the family was OK. Then a Lowe's employee handed them packages of trash bags and tarps.

In Chelsea, Ind., at least four people were killed in and around the Jefferson County town. First responders found a 4-year-old boy and his great-grandparents lying on the ground 50 feet from where the elderly couple's home was blown off its foundation and thrown more than 100 feet.

"All of this happened in less than 30 seconds," said volunteer firefighter Cory Thomas.

In New Pekin, Ind., a baby girl was found critically injured in a field near her home. She is the only member of her family to survive a tornado that killed her parents and two siblings, officials said Saturday.

The sheriff's and coroner's office in Washington County would not release the names of the girl and her family, but officials confirmed that she was taken to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, where she remains in critical condition. Cis Gruebbel, a hospital spokeswoman, said extended family members are with her.

In Kentucky, National Guard Spc. James Moore said, 27 counties were reporting storm damage and 13 counties reported tornadoes. More than 220 National Guard members were sent to help in the stricken counties of Johnson, Laurel, Magoffin, Menifee and Morgan.

In Laurel County, at least four people died and 41 were injured, said sheriff's office spokesman Gilbert Acciardo.

"We could still have some victims down in there we couldn't find overnight. That's the priority right now," Acciardo said.

Endre Samu, public affairs office for the Kentucky State Police in Morehead, said five people were dead in Morgan County and at least 75 injured.

"All of the downtown area was just devastated," he said. Samu said West Liberty's hospital was damaged in the storm and some patients were being transferred to area hospitals.

Deaths also were reported in Ohio, Alabama and Georgia:

•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.

Gov. John Kasich toured some of the damaged sites Saturday.

•The Alabama Emergency Management Agency confirmed one fatality and 11 injuries, less than a year after the state was blasted by a massive tornado outbreak that resulted in more than 240 deaths. On Friday, 17 counties reporting moderate to major damage, spokeswoman Yasamie August said.

•One death blamed on storm runoff was reported in northwest Georgia, where almost 100 homes were damaged by storms.

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