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Cleanup Begins After Intense Storms Wreak Deadly Havoc on South

February 6, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Powerful storms and tornados tore across five southern states Tuesday night, leaving at least 54 dead. After a report on the weather disaster, the governor of Tennessee details the cleanup efforts and a weather expert offers insight on the storms.
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JIM LEHRER: Those deadly tornadoes that struck the South, Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The morning after a line of tornado-spawning thunderstorms marched across five southern states, the toll was clear: At least 50 people had been killed and dozens more injured.

Cars could be seen tumbled together, tractor-trailers tossed like toys, trees scattered and shredded, buildings crushed.

STORM VICTIM: All I have left is my front porch. The rest of it’s gone. The rest of the house is gone.

JEFFREY BROWN: The unusual mid-winter weather produced heavy winds and large hail, but the most destructive force: a series of strong tornadoes, as many as 60 or more by some accounts.

The storms moved from Arkansas east, striking portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Johnnie Martin came home to his Atkins, Arkansas, home just as the twisters bore down. He huddled with his family in a bathroom.

JOHNNIE MARTIN, Storm Victim: It’s like to bust your eardrums. It was just, oh, so loud. And then all this insulation started falling on us and I know it was something. Of course, I had two great, big oak trees here and one on the other end. And that one got the far bedroom, and then, of course, it popped out all the windows.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Martins were fortunate. Three fellow Atkins residents — a husband, wife and their 11-year-old daughter — died, three of the 13 people killed in Arkansas.

Across the Mississippi River, Tennessee suffered most. A Memphis warehouse roof collapsed and killed three. Tornadoes then ripped through Union University in Jackson, east of Memphis, destroying much of the campus. Despite the damage, no one was killed.

DR. DAVID DOCKERY, President, Union University: The campus has suffered major damage. We now, in initial assessments this morning, which are further than what we knew even a couple of hours ago, about 40 percent of the residential life area is completely destroyed.

STORM VICTIM: When we were in the bathroom, the second we closed the door, it was as if it allowed the storm to go. And right then, just noise, you know, just torrents, every glass breaking, everything we had thrown around.

JEFFREY BROWN: Further east, near Nashville last night, a propane gas facility was set aflame. A tower of fire shot hundreds of feet into the sky, visible for miles around.

This morning, rescue workers and volunteers rummaged through wreckage at sites throughout the state. In all, more than two dozen were confirmed dead, and hundreds were injured in Tennessee.

Just to the south in Alabama, four people died. The storms also slammed into Kentucky. Jerry Mitchell is the mayor of Central City.

MAYOR JERRY MITCHELL, Central City, Kentucky: This is something we’ve never even had. This is the first time we’ve ever had to challenge anything like this. Thank God the surrounding communities have come together with us and helped us out. But the damage, with the daylight coming up, I can’t believe how bad it really is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Large parts of the town were leveled.

STORM VICTIM: The lights started flickering, and my husband had come in about five minutes before and I told him, you know, there was a tornado headed towards us. And my son called me from Bowling Green to see if we were OK.

And about that time I heard — it sounded like a train coming. Within, like, 30 seconds, it came over us. I mean, we could hear it coming. It was pretty scary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seven people died in Kentucky last night, and the governor ordered a National Guard contingent to two parts of the state.

Taken as a whole, the storms were the deadliest in the U.S. in nearly a decade.

Tornadoes worst in recent memory

Gov. Phil Bredesen
Tennessee
And people are just in shock. I mean, they sat down to dinner at 6:00 in the evening with their family and, at 10:00, they didn't have a home anymore. And in some cases, they didn't have a family member anymore.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now from Nashville is Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen.

Well, first, Governor, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN (D), Tennessee: It's great to have the opportunity. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you give us a sense, first, of the damage in your state tonight?

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: It's been very extensive. The death count has just actually gone up by two. We have 30 deaths confirmed now. I've been out touring one of the rural counties that's the most hard-hit.

And this was a very strong series of tornadoes across the state. I don't know that I've seen stronger since I've been governor.

JEFFREY BROWN: In terms of the fatalities and injured, are you fairly confident that you've got a full accounting or is it still going on?

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: No, I think, with this last two, they were some missing people, and I think we have a full accounting now. You never know for sure, but I feel pretty confident about those numbers now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So from what you've been able to talk to people or hear from people, how did people respond last night as this was going on?

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: I think people responded wonderfully. You know, it just re-reminded me, as these things have since I've been a governor, what a wonderful group of first responders that we really have out there in Tennessee. And I'm sure it's true across the nation.

I think sometimes, you know, we all know about the heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we've got an awful lot of them right here at home working for our fire departments and our EMS services. And they sure proved it here in Tennessee last night, I'll tell you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how are people coping today? Tell us about people you've been able to meet with or see in person.

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: Well, I think, you know, everyone is just in shock today, particularly in these areas like I was in that were so hard-hit. This tornado was on the ground for probably 20 or 25 miles. Luckily, it was in a rural part of our state or it would have been a huge loss of life.

And people are just in shock. I mean, they sat down to dinner at 6:00 in the evening with their family and, at 10:00, they didn't have a home anymore. And in some cases, they didn't have a family member anymore.

And, you know, I think what we need to do now is make sure about their safety and security and find people places to stay and, over the next few days, start to lend them some support as they try to put their lives back together after something like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a sense yet of how many displaced people you have?

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: No. You know, we're going through that process today. Today has been the first time we've had daylight since this started to really work on it to get an assessment of the damage.

In a number of places, Union College out in Jackson was hit. The dorms were hit, and there were a lot of students who were displaced.

The churches in Jackson really stepped up to that, for which I'm very, very grateful. But we need to get longer-term accommodations for some of them, obviously.

But this is a state, as so many states are, where people are very neighborly and very willing to reach out in a tragedy like this. And I think we'll do just fine.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned Union College. There were some remarkable stories of survival there and elsewhere, where people seemed to have responded quite well to warnings.

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: Yes. You know, we're in a part of the country that gets tornadoes. And I think we've had enough of them over the years that people take the warnings seriously. And when the television comes on or in some of the bigger cities when the tornado warning sirens come on, they pay attention.

For anybody who was inclined not to pay attention, I'd recommend a trip to one of these tornado sites to see what actually happens when they come through. And I think you would never ignore them again.

I mean, they're terrible things. It must have been a nightmare last night for some of these people.

Clean up proceeding well

Gov. Phil Bredesen
Tennessee
We really are wrapping up the first responders' immediate job of getting into the areas that have been hit and looking for people. I'm pretty confident they've accounted for everyone at this particular point.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what happens now for the responders or for you and other emergency officials in the state? What do you need to do over the next few hours tonight or on into tomorrow?

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: I think that, you know, with nightfall tonight, we really are wrapping up the first responders' immediate job of getting into the areas that have been hit and looking for people. I'm pretty confident they've accounted for everyone at this particular point.

I think we now move into, first of all, trying to get some financial help in here for people. I certainly will ask for a presidential declaration probably tomorrow afternoon when we have the assessment.

We use our commerce and insurance department to help people with insurance issues and the like. And then really just to ask the communities to help people kind of get back into the mainstream and get their lives back together, get their kids back in school, and get back to their jobs, and get rebuilding on a house.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I wonder, because this was such a regional event, so many other states hit, are you in contact with other governors? Is there some coordination as to what's going on now?

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: Yes, I've been in contact with a couple of other governors today. There's a lot of coordination that goes on at the level of the emergency management agencies. It's TEMA, Tennessee Emergency Management here.

But they are all in close contact. They lend facilities and equipment and people to each other when it's needed. We've been able to handle it so far by moving crews in from other parts of our state, first responders, for example, from other counties.

I was in a rural county this afternoon, and the first responders that I met with there were from probably a dozen counties throughout this section of Tennessee. So people have really responded to, you know, come together and help the counties that really got hit hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you feel like you're getting the help you need so far?

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: Yes, so far we're getting the help we need. And again, as I say, as governor, it just makes you feel good to know you've got this crew of first responders, many of whom were volunteer in Tennessee, that really can be out there on the front lines for you.

And it's my job now to start getting some of the financing in place, and to ask people to be neighborly, and to help these people whose lives have been displaced.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, thanks so much, and good luck to you.

GOV. PHIL BREDESEN: Thank you very much.

Unusually powerful winter storm

Greg Carbin
NOAA Storm Prediction Center
We have many reports of eyewitness accounts of tornadoes. But, of course, those can often be duplicate accounts of the same tornado. At this point, we have over 70 eyewitness reports of tornadoes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to help us understand more about what happened and why, we turn to Greg Carbin, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Well, Mr. Carbin, how unusual, first, is an event like this?

GREG CARBIN, NOAA Storm Prediction Center: The event was unusual in terms of its magnitude and intensity. It's a winter storm-type system that basically moved into a spring-time air mass across parts of the Mississippi Valley, Tennessee Valley, and Ohio Valley.

We see, in terms of the number of fatalities, an event of this magnitude may come along perhaps every five to seven years. The last one with this number of fatalities, around 50, was back in 1999, May of '99 in the Plains.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it known how many tornadoes there actually were?

GREG CARBIN: It's still too early for the count to be finalized. We have many reports of eyewitness accounts of tornadoes. But, of course, those can often be duplicate accounts of the same tornado.

At this point, we have over 70 eyewitness reports of tornadoes. When all is said and done, that number may come down to about 40 to 50.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what causes something like this when you have that many tornadoes over such a large area? What's going on?

GREG CARBIN: Well, we're seeing, again, a very dynamic, powerful winter storm. In fact, the heavy snow is still falling across parts of the Great Lakes region late today.

And this type of environment, where the wind fields throughout the depths of the atmosphere are very powerful, very strong winds, overlaid on top of a spring-type air mass, very warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, brings about the conditions that are ideal for violent weather like this.

And you have thunderstorms and that warm air mass that then occur within this strong wind field. And these thunderstorms grow upscale, become organized, start to rotate, and produce tornadoes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that can happen any time of year?

GREG CARBIN: Yes. If it's going to happen, the more likely time of year would be from late winter through early spring. Summertime less so, in terms of the extent, the aerial extent covered by this type of event.

But the most likely times of the year would be late winter into early spring. And, again, a secondary peak perhaps during the lake fall, November timeframe.

Early warning system worked well

Greg Carbin
NOAA Storm Prediction Center
Unfortunately, if you're in the path of one of these violent storms, there are very few places you can go that are safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much notice does something like this comes with? When, for example, do you folks know that something is approaching or at least in the offing?

GREG CARBIN: Well, this particular event showed signs -- we started to see indications in the computer model guidance out to about a week in advance, about six days out, and became increasingly confident as we went to day five and day four prior to the event that this was shaping up to be a big outbreak of severe weather.

So four to five days, not unusual for this type of system, being that it is such a large-scale system. It can be handled quite well by the computer models. And then once the system moves across the continental United States, we track it using satellite and radar.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that far in advance, but does that include the possibility of so many tornadoes and such powerful ones?

GREG CARBIN: Well, the devil is in the details, so to speak. And as the event unfolds, it becomes more clear and obvious as to how these individual tornadoes are going to track, and their intensity is going to be determined by factors that cannot be predicted very well in advance.

But the larger-scale storm system, with respect to where the warm air will be and where the ingredients will come together, can be predicted within a few days in advance. And that's what we saw in this case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, from your perspective, how good is the warning system to actually reach people in their homes or at work?

GREG CARBIN: I think this is an exceptional example, despite the unfortunate number of fatalities. The system worked very well yesterday. We had advanced notice out that this was a dangerous day.

We were talking to people on Monday, suggesting that the hazard was going to increase during the day on Tuesday. We have heard that school districts let out early across portions of Arkansas and Tennessee, many hours in advance of the tornadoes.

The tornado watches that were issued were the highest level of watch that we issue at the Storm Prediction Center. We call those particularly dangerous situation watches. They were issued up to two hours in advance, two to two-and-a-half hours in advance of the violent tornadoes touching down.

So quite a bit of lead time and an excellent example, I think, of how the watch and warning system is supposed to work. Unfortunately, if you're in the path of one of these violent storms, there are very few places you can go that are safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Greg Carbin of the Storm Prediction Center, thank you very much.

GREG CARBIN: Thank you.