* Damage over several states, Alabama worst with 204 dead
* Mile-wide tornado tears through university town
* Damage costs may be in billions of dollars, expert says
(Updates death toll, adds FEMA chief)
By Verna Gates
TUSCALOOSA, Ala., April 28 Tornadoes and
violent storms tore through seven Southern states, killing at
least 306 people and causing billions of dollars of damage in
one of the deadliest swarm of twisters in U.S. history.
President Barack Obama described the loss of life as
"heartbreaking" and called the damage to homes and businesses
"nothing short of catastrophic." He promised strong federal
support for rebuilding and plans to view the damage on Friday.
Over several days this week, the powerful tornadoes -- more
than 160 reported in total -- combined with storms to cut a
swath of destruction heading west to east. It was the worst
U.S. natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which
killed up to 1,800 people.
In some areas, whole neighborhoods were flattened, cars
flipped over and trees and power lines felled, leaving tangled
Full coverage of this week's tornadoes [ID:nN28284934]
Tornado video link.reuters.com/jeg39r
Factbox on deadliest U.S. tornado days [ID:nN28269147]
While rescue officials searched for survivors, some who
sheltered in bathtubs, closets and basements told of miraculous
escapes. "I made it. I got in a closet, put a pillow over my
face and held on for dear life because it started sucking me
up," said Angela Smith of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, one of the
worst-hit cities. [ID:nN28264790]
In Birmingham, Alabama, which was also hard hit, Police
Chief A.C. Roper said rescue workers sifted through rubble
"hand to hand" on Thursday to pull people from destroyed
"We even rescued two babies, one that was trapped in a crib
when the house fell down on top of the baby," Roper said in an
interview on PBS NewsHour.
Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the U.S. South
and Midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.
Wednesday was the deadliest day of tornadoes in the United
States since 310 people lost their lives on April 3, 1974.
Given the apparent destruction, insurance experts were wary
of estimating damage costs, but believed they would run into
the billions of dollars, with the worst impact concentrated in
Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.
"In terms of the ground-up damage and quite possibly the
insured damage, this event will be of historic proportions,"
Jose Miranda, an executive with the catastrophe risk modeling
firm EQECAT, told Reuters.
'ONE OF THRE WORST'
"I think this is going to rank up as one of the worst
tornado outbreaks in U.S. history," said Federal Emergency
Management Agency director Craig Fugate.
Fugate spoke in an interview with CNN from Alabama, where
his agency said the tornadoes killed at least 204 people. There
were still unconfirmed reports late on Thursday of "entire
towns flattened" in northern parts of the state, Fugate said.
"We're still trying to get people through rescues and
locate the missing," he said.
In preliminary estimates, other states' officials reported
33 killed in Mississippi, 34 in Tennessee, 11 in Arkansas, 14
in Georgia, eight in Virginia and two in Louisiana.
The mile (1.6 km)-wide monster twister that tore on
Wednesday through Tuscaloosa, home to the University of
Alabama, may have been the biggest ever to hit the state,
AccuWeather.com meteorologist Josh Nagelberg said.
Obama said he would visit Alabama on Friday to see the
damage and meet the governor. He declared a state of emergency
for Alabama and ordered federal aid.
"I want every American who has been affected by this
disaster to know that the federal government will do everything
we can to help you recover, and we will stand with you as you
rebuild," Obama said at the White House.
Miranda said estimated costs would be "in the same
ballpark" as an Oklahoma City tornado outbreak in 1999 that
caused $1.58 billion of damage and a 2003 tornado outbreak in
Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma that caused $4.5
billion of damage.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama was
expected to be shut for days, possibly weeks, as workers
repaired damaged transmission lines. [ID:nN28262530]
But the backup systems worked as intended to prevent a
partial meltdown like the nuclear disaster in Japan.
The rampaging tornadoes and violent storms destroyed 200
chicken houses that held up to 4 million chickens in Alabama,
the No. 3 U.S. chicken producer. [ID:nN28278192]
They also battered a local coal mine. [ID:nN28279160]
Up to 1 million people in Alabama were left without power.
Daimler (DAIGn.DE) said it had shut down its Mercedes-Benz
vehicle assembly plant in Tuscaloosa until Monday due to the
tornadoes, but the plant itself sustained only minor damage.
'SOUNDED LIKE CHAIN-SAW'
Some of the worst devastation occurred in Tuscaloosa, a
town of about 95,000 in the west-central part of Alabama, where
at least 37 people were killed, including some students.
"It sounded like a chain-saw. You could hear the debris
hitting things. All I have left is a few clothes and tools that
were too heavy for the storm to pick up. It doesn't seem real,"
said student Steve Niven, 24.
"I can buy new things but you cannot replace the people. I
feel sorry for those who lost loved ones," Niven told Reuters.
The campus of the University of Alabama, home of the famous
Crimson Tide football team, was not badly damaged, but some
students were killed off campus, Bentley said.
Shops, shopping malls, drug stores, gas stations and dry
cleaners were all flattened in one section of Tuscaloosa.
Alabama's governor declared a state of emergency and
deployed 2,000 National Guard members. Arkansas, Mississippi,
Tennessee and Virginia also declared states of emergency.
Among the Alabama counties affected was Jefferson, which is
struggling to avert what would be the largest bankruptcy in
municipal history over a $3.2 billion bond debt.
The county suffered "widespread damage," a local emergency
spokesman said, and at least 17 people were killed.
(Additional reporting by Peggy Gargis in Birmingham and Leigh
Coleman in Biloxi, Colleen Jenkins in St. Petersburg, Tim
Ghianni in Nashville, Tom Brown in Miami, Will Dunham in
Washington; Writing by Matthew Bigg and Pascal Fletcher;
Editing by Peter Cooney)