* Damage over several states, Alabama worst with 162 dead
* Mile-wide tornado tears through university town
* Alabama nuclear power plant shut after storms
* White House says Obama to visit Alabama on Friday
(Updates toll, adds quote, comment on insurance costs, Obama)
By Verna Gates
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (Reuters) - Tornadoes and
violent storms ripped through seven southern U.S. states,
killing at least 259 people in the country's deadliest series
of twisters in nearly four decades.
The clusters of powerful tornadoes -- more than 160 in
total -- combined with storms to cut a swath of destruction
heading from west to east over several days. In some areas,
whole neighborhoods were flattened, cars flipped over and trees
and power lines felled, leaving mounds of tangled wreckage.
At least 162 people died in Alabama, the worst-hit state
which suffered "massive destruction of property," Governor
Robert Bentley said Thursday.
The mile-wide monster twister that Wednesday
tore through the town of Tuscaloosa, home to the University of
Alabama, may have been the biggest ever to hit the state,
meteorologist Josh Nagelberg said on the AccuWeather.com
Many people told tales of narrow misses. "I made it. I got
in a closet, put a pillow over my face and held on for dear
life because it started sucking me up," said Angela Smith of
Tuscaloosa, whose neighbor was killed.
President Barack Obama will visit Alabama Friday to view
damage and meet the governor, the White House said.
In preliminary estimates, other state officials reported 32
killed in Mississippi, 30 in Tennessee, 11 in Arkansas, 14 in
Georgia, eight in Virginia and two in Louisiana.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama was
expected to be shut for days, possibly weeks, as workers
repaired damaged transmission lines.
But the backup systems worked as intended to prevent a
partial meltdown like the nuclear disaster in Japan.
"The reactors will remain shut until we have restored the
reliability of the transmission system," said Ray Golden,
spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the
Up to 1 million people in Alabama were left without power.
It is too early to estimate the financial cost of the
storms, Alabama's state insurance department said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator
Craig Fugate said it is too early for his agency to give a
confirmed overall death toll and authorities are concentrating
on rescue and recovery.
Some of the worst devastation occurred in Tuscaloosa, where
at least 37 people were killed, including some students.
"It sounded like a chain-saw. You could hear the debris
hitting things. All I have left is a few clothes and tools that
were too heavy for the storm to pick up. It doesn't seem real,"
said student Steve Niven, 24.
"I can buy new things but you cannot replace the people. I
feel sorry for those who lost loved ones," Niven told Reuters.
Shops, shopping malls, drug stores, gas stations and dry
cleaners were all flattened in one section of Tuscaloosa, a
town of around 95,000 in the west-central part of Alabama.
OBAMA ORDERS AID
Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the U.S. South
and Midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.
Obama declared a state of emergency for Alabama and ordered
"Our hearts go out to all those who have been affected by
this devastation and (we) stand ready to continue to help the
people of Alabama," he said in a Twitter message Thursday.
Governor Bentley also declared a state of emergency in
Alabama and said he was deploying 2,000 National Guardsman.
Governors in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee also declared
states of emergency.
Wednesday was the deadliest day of tornadoes in the United
States since 310 people lost their lives on April 3, 1974,
weather forecasters said.
"We have never experienced such a major weather event in
our history," said the Tennessee Valley Authority, which
operates the Browns Ferry nuclear plant and provides
electricity to 9 million people in seven states.
"Everybody says it (a tornado) sounds like a train and I
started to hear the train," Anthony Foote, a resident of
Tuscaloosa whose house was badly damaged, told Reuters. "I ran
and jumped into the tub and the house started shaking. Then
glass started shattering."
The campus of the University of Alabama, home of the famous
Crimson Tide football team, was not badly damaged but some
students were killed off campus, Bentley said.
Damage in Alabama was spread over a wide area through the
north and central part of the state, said Jennifer Ardis,
Bentley's press secretary.
(Additional reporting by Peggy Gargis in Birmingham and Leigh
Coleman in Biloxi, Colleen Jenkins in St. Petersburg; writing
by Matthew Bigg and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Will Dunham)
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