Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Fierce storms that spawned tornadoes roared across the South, killing at least 85 people as they wiped out homes and businesses, forced a nuclear power plant to use backup generators and even prompted the evacuation of a National Weather Service office.
The death toll was staggering — at least 61 killed in Alabama alone, a number that was likely to increase. The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports around the region so far, including 66 in Alabama and 38 in Mississippi.
One of the hardest-hit areas Wednesday was Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama. The city's police and other emergency services were devastated, the mayor said, and at least 15 people were killed and about 100 were in a single hospital.
A massive tornado, caught on video by a news camera on a tower, barreled through the city late Wednesday afternoon, leveling it.
By nightfall, the city was dark. Roads were impassable. Signs were blown down in front of restaurants, businesses were unrecognizable and sirens wailed off and on. Debris littered the streets and sidewalks.
College students in a commercial district near campus used flashlights to check out the damage.
At Stephanie's Flowers, owner Bronson Englebert used the headlights from two delivery vans to see what valuables he could remove. He had closed early, which was a good thing. The storm blew out the front of his store, pulled down the ceiling and shattered the windows, leaving only the curtains flapping in the breeze.
"It even blew out the back wall, and I've got bricks on top of two delivery vans now," Englebert said.
A group of students stopped to help Englebert, carrying out items like computers and printers and putting them in his van.
"They've been awfully good to me so far," Englebert said.
Elsewhere, 11 people were killed in Mississippi, another 11 people were reported dead in Georgia and one person died each in Tennessee and Virginia.
The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out.
The governors in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia each issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and approved his request for emergency federal assistance, including search and rescue assets. About 1,400 National Guard soldiers were being deployed around the state.
"Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by this devastation, and we commend the heroic efforts of those who have been working tirelessly to respond to this disaster," Obama said in a statement.
Around Tuscaloosa, traffic was snarled by downed trees and power lines, and some drivers abandoned their cars in medians.
"What we faced today was massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time," Mayor Walter Maddox said.
University officials said there didn't appear to be significant damage on campus, and dozens of students and locals were staying at a 125-bed shelter in the campus recreation center.
Volunteers and staff were providing food and water to people like 29-year-old civil engineering graduate student Kenyona Pierce.
"I really don't know if I have a home to go to," she said.
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