The death toll from violent storms that punished five Southern U.S. states has jumped to 178 after the hardest-hit state of Alabama took stock of the damage and counted its dead.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it received 137 tornado reports around the regions, including 66 in Alabama and 38 in Mississippi. The storms were all part of a series that have killed close to 200 people in six southern states over the last few days.
Wednesday's storms included what may be the most violent tornado ever to hit Alabama.
State emergency management agency said early Thursday that it had confirmed 128 deaths, and that the death toll would likely rise further as search and rescue teams comb over the damage.
The town of Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000 and home to the University of Alabama, was essentially flattened by a massive tornado estimated to be a stunning two kilometres wide. The twister made a direct hit on the town late Wednesday afternoon, leaving it looking like a warzone.
Christopher England, a student at the University of Alabama, which somehow escaped significant campus damage, told ABC News he ran up to the roof of his building to videotape the twister as it hit.
"We just saw this massive huge mile-wide tornado and we didn't know where it was going. We didn't know if it was coming towards us or away from us or what," he said.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said the storm had been "a devastating blow."
"What we faced today was massive damage on a scale we have not seen in Tuscaloosa in quite some time," Maddox told reporters.
He said at least 100 injured residents were brought to a single hospital. Several city buildings including a fire station and a communication plant were damaged and the city's police and other emergency services were devastated.
"We need men, materials and equipment. Our system is overwhelmed. The tornado took out a major nerve center of city, our environmental services department which is how we pick up debris, trash. It's gone and the fleet that we have, the vehicles are gone," Maddox said.
The Browns Ferry nuclear power plant outside of Huntsville, Alabama, lost offsite power and 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.
Also in Huntsville, meteorologists at a National Weather Service office decided to take shelter in a reinforced steel room when they spotted multiple wall clouds, which sometimes spawn tornadoes, and realized that they themselves could be in the path of the storms.
The building did not end up getting damaged.
"We have to take shelter just like the rest of the people," meteorologist Chelly Amin, who wasn't at the office at the time but spoke with colleagues about the situation, told the Associated Press.
In Mississippi, officials reported 32 dead. Another 11 have been killed in Georgia. Tennessee raised its fatality report to six from one, and one death was reported in Virginia.
The governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia have each issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
U.S. President Barack Obama ordered federal aid for Alabama and about 1,400 National Guard soldiers have been deployed to search for survivors.
"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 Wednesday night.
"While we may not know the extent of the damage for days, we will continue to monitor these severe storms across the country and stand ready to continue to help the people of Alabama and all citizens affected by these storms."
The storms are continuing to do damage, as they move along the eastern seaboard. On Thursday morning, the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings from Florida all the way to New York City.
The NWS Storm Prediction Center said the tornado watch would be in effect from Thursday morning until 3 p.m. ET. They said the storms could also bring hail 4 cm in diameter, thunderstorms, and wind gusts of over 100 km/h.
With reports from The Associated Press