Apr 032012
 
Authors: Los Angeles Times Richard Fausset, Michael Muskal and Ricardo Lopez

ATLANTA _ A wave of tornadoes _ the second this week across the nation’s midsection _ swept through parts of the South and Midwest on Friday, leveling most of two southern Indiana towns and killing at least 27 people in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

The tornadoes devastated Henryville and Marysville, Ind., each with a population of about 2,000 people, said Emily Norcross, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Homeland Security. Emergency officials said late Friday night that 13 had died in southern Indiana, 12 in Kentucky and two in Ohio.

Aerial television images from Henryville showed numerous wrecked houses, some with their roofs torn off and many surrounded by debris. Indiana Homeland Security spokesman John Erickson said a school had been hit and had lost much of its roof.

Friday’s outbreak of tornadoes was “a one-in-20-year event,” spawned by a combination of a cold front, high humidity and warm weather, said Angie Lese, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Louisville, Ky.

“We knew it was going to be bad. All the ingredients came together for a significant outbreak,” she said. “We will have more severe weather this season. This isn’t the last of it, I’m sure. But this is pretty rare.”

The extent of the devastation was unclear as rescuers rushed to affected areas of Indiana, especially Marysville, about 40 miles from Louisville. “That’s the information we have, that Marysville is no longer,” U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said in an interview with CNN.

The tornadoes appear to have knocked out power in areas. In some parts of Kentucky, power outages hampered emergency officials’ abilities to connect with local authorities, said Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for Kentucky emergency operations.

Travel was also dodgy, with interstates and county roads closed in Kentucky as crews worked to clear downed power lines and overturned tractor-trailers.

As rescue crews continued looking for survivors, coroners’ offices in Kentucky were reporting rising death tolls, Wolfe said. Officials were particularly concerned about the rural northeastern town of West Liberty, where “communications were meager,” he added.
Throughout the day, the National Weather Service warned of severe weather that included rain, hail and the likelihood of tornadoes across as many as nine states, some of which had also been struck earlier in the week. Thirteen people died earlier this week and more than 100 were injured as tornadoes began to hit Tuesday night. Those storms killed six people in Harrisburg, Ill.

In Tennessee, Chattanooga and Knoxville reported damage and injuries Friday, said Dean Flener, a spokesman for the state Emergency Management Agency. At least 20 homes were badly damaged and six people were hospitalized in the Chattanooga.

“We’ve had a wave of storms through east Tennessee, with eight counties reporting possible tornadoes,” he said.

In Alabama, at least 10 injuries were reported in the Huntsville area, including Limestone and Madison counties.

“We have numerous homes with minor damage,” said Rita White, director of the Limestone County Emergency Management Agency. State officials said at least 40 homes were destroyed in the region and 100 sustained major damage.

In a tornado outbreak last year, 350 homes were destroyed and nine people died in nearby Madison County, home of the space-flight research hub of Huntsville.

On Friday morning, Dale W. Strong, 41, a Madison County commissioner, headed out along nearly the same tornado path, once again taking stock of the misery.

Strong said the apparent tornado that hit Harvest, Ala., on Friday morning didn’t seem to be as strong as last year’s. But it was still ugly.

Numerous homes were destroyed in the tiny community, about 10 miles north of Huntsville. Some of the houses were damaged, and some were totaled. There were some injuries, but no reports of deaths.
Strong said concrete power poles 60 to 90 feet high had been toppled, with power lines draped across the road. Roofs were gone. Power was out.

Debris, he said, was “just strewn for miles.”

Sparkman High School appeared to have lucked out: Everything was more or less fine. But nearby, Strong said, “we did have 18-wheelers that were flipped upside-down.”

For Strong, who was trained as an emergency medical technician and still volunteers at the Fire Department in nearby Monrovia, such weather was an accepted fact of life in the stretch of country just south of the Tennessee border. In 1989, when Strong was a teenager, he was working on an ambulance when a November tornado tore up Airport Road in Huntsville, killing more than 20 people. The private ambulance company that employed him recognized his work that day with a medal of valor.

“I can tell you this right here: My family has lived in this community for eight generations, and it is hard to see your brothers and sisters that you go to church with, that you play baseball, basketball in our community parks with, to have to go through something like this,” Strong said.

But he also talked about what had gone well on Friday. This, he pointed out, was one particularly smart community. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is in Huntsville, along with numerous aerospace research companies. Madison County is crawling with rocket scientists.

Its people are aware of the risks the weather brings, and they know what to do. The tornado warning system appeared to have worked well Friday, Strong said, with sirens giving residents fair warning before the touchdown, which he said occurred at about 9:30 or 9:45 a.m.

“We’re an engineering town,” he said. “People understand it comes with the territory.”

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