A preliminary National Weather Service report indicates that two tornadoes — one packing 175 mph winds — hit Henryville, an area north of Louisville, Ky. The first was on the ground for 52 miles and measured about 150 yards wide. That tornado was an EF-4, the second-highest rating on the enhanced Fujita scale that measures tornadic force.A second, smaller tornado passed through the town a short while later. Residents of tornado-devastated southern Indiana and state leaders alike expressed gratitude Saturday that more lives weren’t lost as they began the slow task of cleaning up from a string of deadly twisters that roared through tiny communities the day before.
Gov. Mitch Daniels toured the damage, stopping first in hard-hit Henryville, where a high school was heavily damaged as students sought shelter inside. “To know we didn’t lose a single life here, that’s a merciful thing,” Daniels said. The death toll remained at 14 in Indiana on Saturday, part of the at least 38 people killed in five states. Two Ripley County residents and a toddler from Washington County remained hospitalized in critical condition.
Daniels and law enforcement officials credited residents’ preparations and attention to warnings with preventing a larger loss of life. “We prepare and try to get people prepared as best as you can,” said Indiana State Police Sgt. Jerry Goodin at a morning news conference in Sellersburg, “but how do you prepare for the type of devastation that happened yesterday?” Search teams with dogs were combing through the rubble, but Goodin said police believed everyone had been accounted for in Clark, Scott and Washington counties. Goodin said searches for the missing were slowing down as authorities received fewer reports and that the focus was expected to shift to cleanup on Sunday.
That promised to be a long ordeal in towns where many houses were reduced to splinters and businesses were obliterated. Daniels issued disaster declarations for Clark, Gibson, Harrison, Jefferson, Posey, Ripley, Scott, Shelby, Vanderburgh, Warrick and Washington counties. “We’re doing the best we can. I know it’s going to be a long time. This isn’t going to be over in a few days,” said Clark County Sheriff Daniel Rodden. Residents weren’t alone. A National Guard convoy poured into Henryville Saturday morning. Police closed a road leading into Holton in Ripley County so that utility crews could replace downed poles and restore power. FEMA sent a team to help coordinate state and local responders.
Many thoughts turned to an uncertain future. Monty Schneider, superintendent of West Clark Community Schools, took stock of the damage at Henryville Junior/Senior High School and the adjacent elementary school. Schneider said it was unlikely there would be class on Monday because he wasn’t sure where to send students. Sellersburg and Borden schools, also a part of the district, are at capacity. “The very best thing I can say is nobody is hurt, nobody is injured,” Schneider said. Nick Shelton of South Boston, about 10 miles from Henryville, surveyed his destroyed auto garage, trying to salvage what he could from the rubble. He had just opened the Henryville Auto Service in August. Now he’s relying on insurance to cover the cost of his tools and his mortgage. “This was my life’s dream,” he said. “It’s gone.” But he felt confident the town would pull together to rebuild. “Everyone in this town is pretty much friends, and they’ll work out to help everybody out,” Shelton said. “We’ve got a pretty good town.”
The National Weather Service has confirmed four tornadoes in eastern Kentucky from a rash of severe storms that killed 19 people, saying the twisters were the worst in the region in 24 years. The NWS said on its website Saturday that EF3 tornados touched down Friday in Menifee County, Magoffin County and Morgan County, all in eastern Kentucky, and a slightly less serious EF2 went through Laurel County in the southeastern part of the state, where five deaths have been reported. Tornado strength is measured from EF0 to EF5. An EF2 or higher is considered a significant tornado. The weather service said it is still investigating storm damage in the state.
A hospital spokeswoman says a 2-year-old girl found alive in an Indiana field after violent storms is the sole survivor of her immediate family. Cis Gruebbel is a spokeswoman for Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky. She said Saturday that the girl’s mother, father, 2-month-old sister and 3-year-old brother all died Friday when the storms devastated southern Indiana. Gruebbel says the toddler is in critical condition. She would not identify the child and says she could not provide details on the child’s ordeal. She says extended family members are at the hospital with the child. Melissa Richardson, a spokeswoman for the hospital in Salem, Ind. where the child was first taken, said the child’s family is from New Pekin, Ind., and she was found near her home.
About 250 Indiana Army National Guard soldiers have been activated to help with tornado relief in Southern Indiana, officials announced this morning. Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, the guard’s adjutant general, said the soldiers started reporting Friday evening and will assist with search and rescue, evacuation and other efforts. The national guard also is using Black Hawk helicopters to assess the areas around Henryville and Marysville.
The Salvation Army is on the scene in the hardest hit areas of southern Indiana. If you would like to donate money to support their efforts, you can do so by phone, online, or by text:
- Call 800.SAL.ARMY (800.725.2769)
- Donate online at SalvationArmy.org
- Text HOOSIER to 80888 to make a $10 donation
The Salvation Army is providing food, water, and emotional support for the survivors and the emergency crews who are helping them pick up the pieces.
This gentleman is pointing west at a multiple vortex tornado that struck Henryville, Indiana. Henryville would be behind the photographer and Louisville, Kentucky is south on Interstate 65.
It will be a week or more before the National Weather Service assessment team gives specifics on the deadly tornadoes that raked the Ohio River Valley on Friday. This journalist is particularly interested in this storm for a number of reasons. First, Indiana is where I was born, the state of my youth. These are my old stomping grounds. Second, these tornadoes took an almost identical path to two super-cell tornadoes in the 1974 storms that went up the Ohio Valley. Third, I tracked this storm system from Evansville in far southwest Indiana and initial indications suggest that at least one of these tornadoes was on the ground for 31 miles. I think it may have been longer.
The remnants of a string of vicious storms swept eastward along the Florida Panhandle 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 36 people, obliterated communities and affected 17 million people from Texas to Indiana to North Carolina. Of the 36 victims, 17 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. 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. Shawn Harley, from the National Weather Service, said people were trapped in damaged buildings in West Liberty after a tornado. There was no immediate word on casualties as a result, said Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Kentucky Emergency Management Agency. Wolfe said officials believe the town “got hit pretty heavily.”
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.”
March tornadoes: One day there was a town; the next day it was gone
Big news in Henryville, Indiana, had been that the coach of the high school boys’ basketball team was stepping down at the end of the season. The Hornets are the pride of this small Indiana town a few miles up Interstate 65 from Louisville. That was before Friday when killer storms ripped through the area. One day there was a community here. The next, there was none. “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. Goodwin was sure the community would rally, come together and claw its way back to what it once knew to be normal.
Saturday, as rescuers still scoured for survivors, the stunned people of Henryville mourned what they lost and gave thanks for what they still had. Steve Kloepfer lives in Chelsea, just east of Henryville. Friday, he watched on television as the storms drew near. “I saw it from the radar it was getting close, so I walked down the driveway and saw it coming through the woods,” Kloepfer told CNN affiliate WHAS. He got in his truck and drove south about a mile to “let it blow through.” He returned to a new, grim reality. A tornado destroyed his house and the the home shared by his aunt and uncle, Terry and Carol Jackson. They were missing along with their 4-year-old grandchild. Later, their bodies were discovered in a field, covered in debris.
They were among the 14 who died in Indiana. About 2,000 people live in Henryville, known as the birthplace of Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. Many in this town know each other through the high school and elementary school, housed on one campus. Friday afternoon, not all the students were able to leave because their parents were not at home. Elementary School Principal Glenn Riggs huddled with 40 students in the offices. And prayed. Saturday morning, a girder jutted skyward from the wreckage of the school. Across the street, a yellow school bus that only hours ago had taken children home lay off its chassis, slammed into a building as though it were a toy tossed by a child.
Considering the damage, people at the school should have been hurt, Riggs figured. “It’s a blessing. We praise God,” he said. Aerial images of Henryville Saturday were devastating: the guts spilled out from buildings, debris littering open fields and trees felled like dominoes. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels got up in the sky to survey the misery himself. Lucky it wasn’t worse, he thought. “We’re not unfamiliar with Mother Nature’s wrath out here in Indiana,” he said. “But this about as serious as we’ve seen it in the years I’ve been in this job.” People driving on Indiana Highway 60 Friday got a perfect view of the monster twister barreling through town.
Lawrence Smith, a reporter with WDRB, saw the tornado hurtling straight toward him. The video his station was able to get was incredible, he said. So was the experience. Smith ran into a convenience store for cover as the funnel drew closer. “We waited for it. The building shook, the lights went off. The noise was incredible,” he said. “It passed right by in front of us.” A gas station across street was leveled, as was a nearby apartment complex. Chad Hinton captured the tornado from his truck as he drove home to nearby Borden. He had never quite seen anything like it. Adrenaline pulsed through his veins. “It was a huge powerful force,” he said, recalling the thundering noise. The hail and rain bore down on his truck. He felt lucky to be what he estimated as two miles off the twister’s track. He thought about the people who were right in the middle of it.
In Salem, another town near Henryville, a little girl with blond hair and blue eyes was found alone in a field. No one knew how she had gotten there; they just knew she needed help. The 20-month-old toddler was taken to hospital and intubated to help her breathe, said Clark County Sheriff’s Department Maj. Chuck Adams said. She was flown about 35 miles southeast to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was in critical condition Saturday afternoon, said Brian Rublein, a spokesman for Kosair. Someone had called to identify the girl, after which the family was contacted. The hospital and police did not release any other details.
As uncertain as the toddler’s fate was, she was glimmer of good news amid the sorrow. Another child, a 9-year-old boy from Henryville, is missing. Adams said that the boy’s whereabouts have been unknown since twisters hit. With power out, authorities relied on thermal radar imaging and search-and-rescue dogs to try to find him. Others waited for loved ones at Henryville’s St. Francis Xavier Church, which became a meeting point for frantic residents looking for loved ones. The message on the church’s answering machine summed up the community’s fears: “Hello, this is Father Steve. I’m sorry to let you know we do not have any detailed information ourselves on people. They are consolidating information at the fire station. However, there is no way of contacting the fire department through normal channels because the phone lines are down. All I can say is pray for your friends and family.”
CNN’s Susan Candiotti reported from Henryville, Indiana, and Moni Basu reported from Atlanta. 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.