LONDON, Kentucky (Reuters) - Calm weather gave dazed residents of storm-wracked U.S. towns a respite on Sunday as they dug out from a chain of tornadoes that cut a swath of destruction from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, killing at least 39 people.
The fast-moving twisters spawned by massive thunderstorms splintered blocks of homes, damaged schools and a prison, and tossed around vehicles like toys, killing 21 people in Kentucky, 13 in neighboring Indiana, three in Ohio and one in Alabama, officials said. Georgia also reported a storm-related death.
Forecasters said more trouble was headed for the hardest hit areas of Indiana and Kentucky on Sunday night, when up to three inches of rain and snow were expected to add to the misery for hundreds of residents whose homes were destroyed.
“It’s very light right now, but the coverage and intensity of the precipitation is expected to increase later on this afternoon and into the evening,” said Kurt Van Speybroeck of the National Weather Service.
The fast-moving tornadoes that hit on Friday, numbering at least 30, came on top of severe weather earlier in the week in the Midwest and brought the overall death toll from the unseasonably early storms to at least 52 people.
On Sunday, a toddler who had become a symbol of hope amid destruction after she was found alive in an Indiana field died of her injuries, state police said. The tornado that killed Angel Babcock also claimed the lives of her parents and her two siblings.
Angel, who was reported to be 14 months old, had been in critical condition in a Kentucky hospital since Friday, when she was rescued after a tornado hit her family’s mobile home in New Pekin, Indiana.
The girl’s grandfather, Jack Brough, had earlier told the Louisville Courier-Journal that her condition was extremely critical, and asked for prayers. Angel’s family of five were the only people killed in Washington County, one of the hardest hit areas of the state.
The violent storms raised fears that 2012 will be another bad year for tornadoes after 550 deaths in the United States were blamed on twisters last year, the deadliest year in nearly a century, according to the National Weather Service.
National Guard troops manned checkpoints on roads and outside towns, and were checking identity documents of those seeking to enter hard hit areas of Indiana and Kentucky following reports of looting. Long lines of cars waited at the entrances to some towns.
As recently as Sunday afternoon, police stopped a vehicle on a back road that was trying to leave a home with a load full of stolen copper, Albert Hale, the emergency manager for Kentucky’s Laurel County said.
Indiana’s hard-hit Clark County, where a powerful EF-4 tornado hit the town of Henryville, imposed a nighttime curfew, and Kentucky’s Governor Steve Beshear on Sunday urged spectators and unsolicited volunteers to stay out of the way so emergency responders could do their jobs.
Beshear told reporters the storm had caused at least $5.8 million in property damage. He described the scene in the hard-hit town of West Liberty as one of “total devastation” and signed an executive order barring price gouging for food and other necessities.
“It looked like a bomb had been dropped in the middle of town,” he said of West Liberty. “Buildings had the walls standing and the roof gone. It was a terrible sight. It’s going to be a long, long time to get that town on its feet.”
About 400 National Guard troops have been dispatched around the state to maintain order.
Indiana State Police Sergeant Jerry Gooden said the focus in southern Indiana had turned from search and rescue to securing the area and clearing the way for volunteers, who he said may be allowed in on Monday.
“We’re guarding property so people don’t come in and steal what little people do have left,” Gooden said. “We’ve got a boatload of volunteers we can’t let in yet because of the dangers from the electric lines and gas lines being there. It’s a tedious process because each home’s got a gas line, but they’re getting it done.”
President Barack Obama called the governors of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to offer condolences and assure them the federal government was ready to help if needed. Kentucky’s Beshear said he would request a federal disaster declaration.
Meanwhile, clean-up crews worked to move downed power lines and clear debris, and residents began putting tarps over torn apart homes to prevent further damage. The more fortunate brought donations including diapers, blankets and food to area churches.
Residents in the affluent Kentucky town of London, in a county near the Tennessee border that reported five deaths, were eager to get back to some degree of normal life.
Willa Reynolds greeted dozens of attendees at the front entrance of Grace Fellowship Church, many wiping snow flakes from their clothes as they walked in.
“It’s good to see you,” Reynolds said to one person. “It’s good to see every single person who walks through the door after the week we had.”
Additonal reporting by Karen Brooks, Mary Slosson and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Peter Bohan