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TUSCALOOSA, AL (RNN) - A horrific storm system that killed more than 300 people in seven states across the South is one of the worst the country has experienced in more than four decades.
In the 24-hour period that ended at 8 a.m. CT Thursday, 163 tornadoes had been reported by eye witnesses. One of those, a mile-wide tornado that bisected Alabama, killed more than 200 people in that state alone, barely missing a college campus housing thousands of students, but leveling a large swatch of town with its destruction.
Officials are on the ground Thursday assessing the damage and delivering emergency services and supplies to the victims of the storm.
Fatalities by state
"While we may not know the extent of the damage for days," President Barack Obama said in a statement Wednesday, "we will continue to monitor these severe storms across the country and stand ready to continue to help the people of Alabama and all citizens affected by these storms."
Obama will travel Friday to Alabama to survey storm damage and meet with local officials and families affected by the storms, according to a news release issued by the White House Thursday afternoon.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center said 2011 is already a record-breaking year for storm activity.
Keli Tarp, public information officer with the center, said 610 tornadoes have already been reported this month alone. That number likely will change as those eye-witness accounts are confirmed.
"This year is likely to have a record number of tornados for the month of April," Tarp said.
A record number of tornadoes brought with it a near-record number of deaths.
Dave Imy, a NOAA meteorologist, said the number of deaths in Wednesday's storm system was the most in any tornado outbreak since 1974, when 315 people died.
The weather system had killed at least 298 people in six southern states, based on figures obtained Thursday by the Raycom News Network. That number continues to rise.
Tennessee reported 34 fatalities, 32 in Mississippi, 14 in Georgia, 12 in Arkansas, 11 in Virginia and 1 in Kentucky.
Was the Tuscaloosa tornado an EF4?
The Enhanced Fujita-scale, or EF Scale for short, is used to rate the intensity of a tornado by examining the damage caused by the tornado after it has passed over a man-made structure.
This scale rates the intensity of the tornado, and measures length and width of its path.
The original Fujita Scale was invented by Dr. T. Theodore Fujita in 1971. It helps categorize tornadoes by intensity and area, whereas the EF Scale became operational Feb. 1, 2007.
Officials from the National Weather Service (NWS) have begun surveying the damage to the affected Southern states to determine what category each tornado falls into.
Some things that surveyors look for is the attachment of the walls and floors to foundations of a building, attachment of the roof to the rafters and walls, and whether there is mortar between the cinder blocks.
In a 24-hour period ending at 8 a.m. CT Thursday, the NWS gathered reports of 163 tornadoes, a number that likely will decrease once the wreckage is surveyed.
The EF Scale is divided into 6 categories: EF0 - Gale, EF1 - Weak, EF2 - Strong, EF3 - Severe, EF4 - Devastating and EF5 - Incredible.
A spokesman with the NWS said Wednesday's tornado that touched down in Tuscaloosa would most likely be an EF4 or greater.
Alabama took the hardest hit by far. As of early Friday morning, CNN reported that 228 people in 19 counties had died in Alabama.
A state of emergency was declared by the president shortly after the storms raged through.
In his statement Wednesday, Obama said he told Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, R-AL, he had ordered the federal government to move swiftly in its emergency response.
"I approved his request for emergency Federal assistance, including search and rescue assets," Obama said.
Especially hard hit was the city of Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama.
In the college town, a mile-wide tornado killed 32 people and injured hundreds, tossing boats from a store into an apartment complex, ripping holes in rooftops and destroying a swath of restaurant establishments along a bustling street.
"I don't know how anyone survived," the Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox told CNN. "We're used to tornadoes here in Tuscaloosa. It's part of growing up. But when you look at the path of destruction that's likely 5 to 7 miles long in an area half a mile to a mile wide ... it's an amazing scene. There's parts of the city I don't recognize, and that's someone that's lived here his entire life."
Hundreds of buildings and homes were leveled by the tornado. Overnight Wednesday, search and rescue personnel looked for victims who could be buried beneath the rubble.
Michael Neese, 21, a junior at the university, was in his apartment off 15th Street when the tornado passed by.
"It was like a white cloud just twirling in the parking lot next door to me," he said. "It tore Tuscaloosa up. All of 15th Street is gone."
The massive tornado left Tuscaloosa's two hospitals swirling in activity. One, in direct line of the storm, also suffered damage from the twister.
"We're estimating around 600 were treated at DCH Regional Medical Center," said Brad Fisher, DCH spokesman.
Windows in several patient rooms as well as a waiting area were blown out there.
Fisher said the hospital was without water for about six hours, and power was only restored in the wee hours of morning.
More than 100 patients per hour flooded their doors immediately after the storm, Fisher said. The hospital admitted 92 people and reported five dead as of Thursday morning.
"Our numbers will increase today," Fisher said. "Business in the ED is steady, so we're not done."
Neese is one of thousands of students with class canceled Thursday and Friday, as the University of Alabama remains without power, according to Bill McDaniel, with university relations.
In the wake of the widespread damage, the university's student recreation center has been set up as a shelter and counseling center. At least 65 students slept there Wednesday night. University housing is currently working with students who lost their homes in the storm, an exact number of which remains unknown.
According to Neese, grocery stores were jam-packed Wednesday evening following the storm. This forced an additional 2,500 students ate dinner Wednesday night in the university's one open dining hall. Sans power, the students were forced to dine on sandwiches and other cold foods. An emergency email sent to students Thursday morning said lines for food were expected to be long and asked for patience.
Final exams were scheduled for next week for Alabama. Students were informed Thursday afternoon that they have the option to accept their existing grades as of April 27 or take their final exams at a later date.
The university's class of 2011 has also had their commencement canceled and rescheduled for Aug. 6.
"These steps are being taken to allow students impacted by the storms to return to their homes while recovery efforts continue in the Tuscaloosa area," said an additional email sent to students Thursday afternoon.
Another area of concern is the city of Athens and nearby Browns Ferry nuclear power plant.
The plant shut down at 4:36 p.m. CT Wednesday afternoon after losing of-site power in the storm. A design of the plant enabled back-up diesel generators to kick in, providing electricity to cool the reactors an prevent a meltdown.
"This was a safe shutdown. Everything worked as designed," a TVA employee told the Raycom News Network.
The plant's current classification is "unusual event," which is the lowest of four emergency level classifications.
Monday, April 30 2012 12:17 AM EDT2012-04-30 04:17:45 GMT
Most of the homes along Highway 20 in Hillsboro that were destroyed by those deadly tornadoes have been rebuilt, but there's still a long road to recovery. Lawrence Davis Jr. didn't imagine April 27th,More >>
Most of the homes along Highway 20 in Hillsboro that were destroyed by those deadly tornadoes have been rebuilt, but there's still a long road to recovery.More >>
Sunday, April 29 2012 12:24 AM EDT2012-04-29 04:24:01 GMT
The road to recovery still a long one ahead for a Harvest family that lost two loved ones from the April 27 tornadoes. Misty Cornwell held a memorial Saturday afternoon to remember her 15-year-old daughter,More >>
The road to recovery still a long one ahead for a Harvest family that lost two loved ones from the April 27 tornadoes. Misty Cornwell held a memorial Saturday afternoon to remember her 15-year-old daughter, Katie, and her father, Harold Fitzgerald, who were both killed by the storm one year ago.More >>
Thursday, April 26 2012 5:30 PM EDT2012-04-26 21:30:15 GMT
An August 29, 2011 Gov. Robert Bentley announced the formation of the Tornado Recovery Action Council, or TRAC. The group of industry and government leaders had a simple mission; to help Alabama recoverMore >>
The Tornado Recovery Action Council of Alabama researched and developed 20 key ways to improve disaster preparedness in the state.More >>
With the cleanup process under way and the death toll holding steady, federal, state and local officials are teaming up to put the pieces back together for the broken communities slashed by last week's devastating tornadoes.More >>