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Violent storms smack Southern U.S., kill at least 85


TUSCALOOSA, Alabama (AP) -- Fierce storms obliterated large swaths
of land from Mississippi to Georgia, wiping out homes and businesses, causing a nuclear power plant to use backup generators and even forcing the evacuation of a National Weather Service office.

The death toll was staggering _ at least 85 people killed in five states, including 61 in Alabama alone, a number that was likely to increase.

One of the hardest-hit areas 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.

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.

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.

Storms also struck Birmingham, felling numerous trees that impeded emergency responders and those trying to leave hard-hit areas. Surrounding Jefferson County reported 11 deaths; another hard-hit area was Walker County in the far northwest part of the state with at least eight deaths. The rest of the deaths were scattered around northern Alabama.

The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant about 30 miles west of Huntsville lost offsite power. The Tennessee Valley Authority-owned plant had to use seven diesel generators to power the plant's three units. The safety systems operated as needed and the emergency event was classified as the lowest of four levels, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.

In Huntsville, meteorologists found themselves in the path of severe storms and had to take shelter in a reinforced steel room, turning over monitoring duties to a sister office in Jackson, Mississippi. Meteorologists saw multiple wall clouds, which sometimes spawn tornadoes, and decided to take cover, but the building wasn't damaged.
   
``We have to take shelter just like the rest of the people,'' said meteorologist Chelly Amin, who wasn't at the office at the time but spoke with colleagues about the situation.

She said the extent of the damage statewide is still unknown.

``I really think with the rising of the sun, we'll see the full extent of this,'' she said
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