37 dead in storms across Midwest, South

Posted at 4:34 PM, Mar 02, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-05 14:04:52-05

By the CNN Wire Staff

HENRYVILLE, Indiana (CNN) -- The remnants of a string of vicious storms swept eastward along the Florida Panhandle on Saturday, bringing fresh misery as towns elsewhere in the South and in the Midwest already were reeling from loss of life and property.

A tornado outbreak Friday, unusual for this time of year, killed at least 37 people, obliterated communities and affected 17 million people from Texas to Indiana to North Carolina. [PHOTOS: Tornadoes rip across U.S]

Of the 37 victims, 18 were in Kentucky, 14 in Indiana, three in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia.

Saturday began with large swaths of the region still battered by heavy rain and under tornado watches -- and a real fear of the death toll rising.

Parts of southern Georgia and northern Florida remained under tornado watch Saturday afternoon. Heavy rain and high wind could threaten places as far south as Orlando later Saturday, forecasters said.

In Lakeland, Georgia, strong winds "destroyed" several houses, felled trees, spurred major outages, and caused what appears to be minor damage to several buildings behind a hospital, Lanier County Sheriff Wesley Studstill told CNN. He said he was unsure if there were any related injuries.

The National Weather Service received two reports of tornadoes Saturday in Lanier County, which is about 30 miles north of the Florida border.  [VIDEO: Uncut footage of tornado in Henryville, Indiana]

Meanwhile, residents from Alabama to Ohio spent Saturday trying to make sense of the chaos -- and right their lives -- after the previous day's devastating tornadoes.

Piles of debris took the place of well-built homes. High winds toppled tall trees. Bright yellow school buses smashed into buildings. Garbage bins and wooden beams flew through the air with the force of a jet airliner.

Churches turned into shelters and thousands of people began a weekend unnerved by nature's fury.

National Weather Service meteorologist John Gordon described the weather as crazy.

"It's just nuts right here," he said during the height of the storms.

In hard-hit Henryville, Indiana, rescuers combed for survivors after a tornado ripped through the town 20 miles north of Louisville.

"What we know is we've got complete destruction. We're going to deal with it the best we can," Sgt. Jerry Goodwin of the Indiana State Police told CNN affiliate WISH-TV late Friday. "We're going to come together, and we're going to get it done."

Amid the mounting reports of death and destruction, there was some good news.

A 20-month-old girl was found alive, alone and injured in a field in Salem, about 20 miles south of Henryville, said Maj. Chuck Adams, a sheriff's department spokesman.

She was later identified and family members joined her at the hospital. However, she remained in critical condition Saturday afternoon, Kosair Children's Hospital spokesman Brian Rublein said.

At Henryville's high school and adjacent elementary school, staff had huddled in the office area with about 40 students who had not been able to go home and prayed as twisters approached.

"It's a blessing. We praise God" that no one was hurt, said Glenn Riggs, the elementary school principal.

Unfortunately, many nearby residents were not so lucky.

It was unclear how many people were missing in Henryville, as well as the towns of Chelsea, Paynesville and Marysville -- all hit by tornadoes -- because authorities are still trying to wrap their arms around the sheer amount of devastation, Adams said.

"Marysville is almost completely gone," Adams told CNN affiliate WHAS-TV, out of Louisville, Kentucky.

Authorities spray-painted a yellow "X" on what remained of the homes in Marysville. In some cases, it was just wooden planks.

In Chelsea, east of Henryville, Steve Kloepfer told WHAS that the bodies of his aunt and uncle, Terry and Carol Jackson, and their 4-year-old grandchild were discovered in a field, covered in debris.

His own home, he said, also was gone.

President Barack Obama talked Saturday with the governors of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio to express his concerns, offer condolences for those killed and vow the federal government is ready to help, the White House said in a statement.

To that point, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has been in touch with emergency management officials in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones and those whose lives have been affected by the storms," said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

Roughly 250 National Guard troops have been called in to provide aid and security in Henryville, Marysville and elsewhere, said Sgt. 1st Class Tina Eichenour.

In Kentucky, similar scenes played out as Gov. Steve Beshear declared a statewide emergency and ordered the deployment of 220 National Guard troops to join a 12-person team searching for survivors in Morgan County.

Around 5 p.m. Saturday, the governor detailed -- citing the state Department of Public Health -- 18 fatalities in six counties, including five in Laurel County.

One apparent tornado made its way down Main Street in West Liberty, shredding buildings and overturning cars along the way. Mike Lacy, with Morgan County's emergency management agency, reported that several people were rescued -- including one man trapped under up to 10 feet of debris -- though four died as a result of the storm across the county.

"It's been a tough night," said Morgan County executive Tim Conley. "We are (fortunate) to report four (dead) and not 104, because we could have lost a whole lot more lives in this thing."

In Tennessee, there were reports of possible tornado touchdowns in nine counties, according to Jeremy Heidt, the state's emergency management spokesman. At least 29 people were injured across the state.

The storms also moved through northern Georgia late Friday. A tornado was believed to have struck north Georgia's Paulding County, damaging two elementary schools, a small local airfield and an undetermined number of homes, said Ashley Henson, a sheriff's spokesman.

Aerial images showed roofs ripped off houses, exposing bedrooms, kitchens and garages. Six houses were destroyed. In one, a couple survived by getting into the bathtub with their 6-month-old child, Henson said.

"Thank goodness there were actually no injuries or fatalities reported in the Paulding County area," he said. "That is amazing to me, looking at some of this damage."

But one person was killed in the suburban Atlanta city of Alpharetta.

And rescue crews in Haralson County worked for some two hours to free a man trapped in his collapsed home, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The man suffered a broken leg. The National Weather Service later confirmed that a tornado with winds between 136 and 165 mph struck in that county.

The storm also caused extensive damage to hangars and planes at the Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport.

According to airport manager Blake Swafford, about 20 of the 23 planes that were at the airport off U.S. 278 Friday night were destroyed. Hangars were also heavily damaged, with large pieces of metal blown into the tops of nearby trees.

Around Charlotte, North Carolina, at least three people were injured, said Capt. Rob Brisley of the fire department.

The National Weather Service confirmed an EF-2 twister --- with maximum winds up to 135 mph -- struck early Saturday morning along a roughly 3.8-mile long, 175-foot wide stretch through East Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties. At least 20 homes were damaged, six of them extensively, according to the agency.

In Ohio, two people died in Bethel and another in Moscow due to the storms, Clermont County Commissioner Bob Proud said.

"It's like a bomb went off and everything is splintered, bricks are down, and trees, and just a lot of debris," Ohio Gov. John Kasich said after touring damage in those and other nearby towns.

He said that the state plans to work with the federal government to provide relief, though at this point there are no plans to request a federal disaster declaration. After talking with people who planned to rebuild, Kasich vowed "we'll be back."

"We're knocked down, but we're not knocked out," he said. "We're going to get through it."

CNN's Joe Sutton, Susan Candiotti, Moni Basu, Melanie Whitley, Kara Devlin, Maria P. White, Greg Botelho and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

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