CRITTENDEN, KY - Calm weather gave dazed residents of storm-wracked towns a respite early on Sunday as they dug out from a chain of tornadoes that cut a swath of destruction from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, killing at least 39 people.
The fast-moving twisters spawned by massive thunderstorms splintered blocks of homes, damaged schools and a prison, and tossed around vehicles like toys, killing 20 people in Kentucky, 14 in neighboring Indiana, three in Ohio and one in Alabama, officials said. Georgia also reported a storm-related death."We're not unfamiliar with Mother Nature's wrath out here in Indiana," Governor Mitch Daniels told CNN during a visit to the stricken southeast corner of the state."But this is about as serious as we've seen in the years since I've been in this job," he said, standing against the backdrop of the hard-hit town of Henryville, which declared a nighttime curfew to prevent looting.Friday's storms came on top of severe weather earlier in the week in the Midwest and brought the overall death toll from the unseasonably early storms this week to at least 52 people.Tornadoes smashed Indiana and Kentucky hard, with Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Tennessee overrun as well. But the National Weather Service forecast a mild morning for the hardest hit areas on Sunday, with rain or snow possible in some areas.US President Barack Obama called the governors of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to offer condolences and assure them the federal government was ready to help if needed, the White House said.Television footage from Indiana and Kentucky showed houses ripped from their foundations, trees downed and stripped of their foliage, and rubble scattered across wide stretches of land.This week's violent storms raised fears that 2012 will be another bad year for tornadoes after 550 deaths in the United States were blamed on twisters last year, the deadliest year in nearly a century, according to the National Weather Service.In the northern Kentucky town of Crittenden, where tornadoes ripped roofs off houses and damaged apartment blocks, low-security prisoners in orange jackets were brought in to help with clean-up efforts.In another hard-hit Kentucky town, 48-year-old carpenter Kevin Stambaugh described how he survived a twister that killed his two neighbors, who he said were found dead huddled together in their kitchen. He said he also lost 25 horses in the storm."The Lord was looking out for me," he told Reuters outside a church in the town of Morning View, adding that wind had pushed him down the stairs to his basement and pinned him between a bar and a wall. "The windows were shattered and shards of glass were swirling around near my head."At least 300 people came to the Piner Baptist Church, advertised as a relief center, to volunteer after the storm."Being from here, born and raised, the hardest thing is knowing that the houses I grew up seeing every day are gone. There are no words," said volunteer Amy Heeger, 38, who works for a car auction company but headed for the church to help out.