BIRMINGHAM, USA / Alabama — Tornadoes and thunderstorms carved a trail of destruction across the southern United States, killing over 220 people in one of the country's worst weather disasters in years, officials said Thursday.
The severe weather killed 131 people in the state of Alabama alone on Wednesday, authorities said, and President Barack Obama said Washington would be rushing assistance to the battered southeastern state.
States of emergency were declared in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma, and governors called out the National Guard to help with rescue and cleanup operations.
In all, state officials reported at least 227 people dead, but as the residents and emergency workers began to mop up and assess the damage the toll was likely to rise.
The National Weather Service (NWS) had preliminary reports of more than 300 tornados since storms began Friday, including more than 130 on Wednesday alone.
Alabama was especially badly hit, caught by two lines of storms and an evening tornado that tore through the city of Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox told CNN the tornado had "obliterated blocks and blocks" of his city, leaving 36 people dead there.
"Infrastructure has been absolutely devastated," he said Thursday. "When you look at this path of destruction, likely five to seven miles (eight to 11 kilometers) long and half a mile to a mile wide, I don't know how anyone survived.
"There are parts of this city I don't recognize.... It is a dark hour for our city," he added.
A tornado also struck the city of Birmingham. "This has been a very serious and deadly event that's affected our state, and it's not over yet," Alabama Governor Robert Bentley told reporters.
Stunned Birmingham residents assessed the damage early Thursday, some counting their blessings to still be alive, others distraught over the loss of their loved ones or homes.
"There were two-by-fours (wooden beams) falling out of the sky," convenience store manager Jack Welch said, adding "there were well over 30 homes destroyed" just behind his store in Birmingham.
Some property swept up by the killer twisters was found 50 miles (80 kilometers) away, as power was knocked out to many communities.
The Tuesday-Wednesday storms are believed to be the deadliest US natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina of 2005, and Accuweather.com said the tornados were the worst since 310 people were killed on April 3, 1974.
In Mississippi the storm killed 32 people and caused damage in 50 of its 82 counties, according to Greg Flynn at the state's emergency management agency.
State officials reported at least 30 dead in Tennessee, 11 killed in Arkansas, 13 killed in Georgia, seven in Virginia, and another three killed in Missouri, with the overall toll likely to rise.
"Oh my God, our town is in pieces," said Tim Holt, a clerk at a local hotel in Ringgold, Georgia. "We saw the funnel cloud coming and I ran into the bathroom with my wife and daughter."
"It's an 80 percent loss in our town," he added.
"We have major devastation in the city of Ringgold," Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers acknowledged to reporters Thursday.
Storm victims across the region were trapped in homes, trailers and cars by falling trees. Hail the size of golf balls cracked windows.
Roads were washed out or rendered impassable by fallen trees and power lines across the region. Homes, schools and businesses were flattened, flooded and set on fire by lightning.
Another major storm system is forecast to bring heavy rain and high winds on Saturday. The storms come after a wet spring and a winter of heavy snowfall which has left the ground saturated and rivers running high.
The NWS issued a rare "high-risk" warning of tornados, hail, flash flooding and dangerous lightning for parts of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
It warned that severe weather could also strike 21 states from the Great Lakes down to the Gulf Coast and across to the Atlantic, and tornados were reported as far east as Virginia and Maryland.
Officials were considering deliberately destroying levees in some areas to ease pressure on swollen rivers, some of which are so high that barges have become trapped under bridges.
As much as 18 inches (45 centimeters) of rain had fallen from Saturday through Tuesday night in some areas.