Storms rip through states, killing 39

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Cindy Lanham examines her Ford Explorer that was flung roughly 100 yards onto a neighbor's property during a tornado Saturday. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr)

With dozens dead and scores of buildings reduced to rubble, residents of the Midwest and South on Sunday were assessing the devastation wrought by last week’s series of vicious twisters.

By the time the powerful storm system faded, 39 were killed: 21 in Kentucky, 13 in Indiana, three in Ohio and one each in Alabama and Georgia.

“The damage I saw yesterday was the worst I’ve seen. … It was a war zone, debris everywhere, buildings destroyed, other buildings just the walls standing, roofs gone. It was a terrible sight,” Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear told reporters Sunday, describing his visit to the tornado-ravaged town of West Liberty.

Many miles and many states away, others described similar scenes.

Piles of concrete and wood remained strewn across the landscape of what used to be homes. Tall, once-sturdy trees littered the ground. Bright yellow school buses lay smashed into buildings. Garbage bins and wooden beams, which had flown through the air like a jet airliner, resurfaced hundreds of yards away.

“It’s like a bomb went off and everything is splintered, bricks are down and trees, and (there’s) just a lot of debris,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said after visits to Moscow and Bethel.

On Sunday, the focus turned to caring for survivors whose lives were turned upside down by the storm.

Beshear told reporters he was requesting an expedited disaster declaration from President Barack Obama.

Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were scheduled to begin damage assessments in Kentucky Monday, he said.

Meanwhile, state officials were preparing as forecasters predicted rain and snow would hit parts of Kentucky Sunday night, Beshear said.

“We have made sure that the shelters are open. … There’s obviously food and clothing and warmth in those shelters (for tornado victims),” he said.

The tornado outbreak began Friday and extended into the next day, affecting about 17 million people from Indiana to Georgia.

Indiana State Police Sgt. Jerry Goodin said the destruction left authorities there with “no idea how many people are left homeless.”

“There are a lot of people who can’t sit down on their own couch this evening,” Goodin said Saturday.

More than 400 National Guard troops were deployed in Kentucky, while 250 more were dispatched in Indiana, according to state officials.

In Henryville, Indiana, about 20 miles north of Louisville, an EF-4 tornado — with sustained winds of between 166 mph and 200 mph, putting it in the top 2% of tornadoes in terms of its strength — struck a school complex.

National Weather Service meteorologists said it was one of two tornadoes that hit the town, crediting the early dismissal of students with preventing more fatalities. The 40 students who had remained and huddled in an office area survived the storm, elementary school principal Glenn Riggs said.

But the storm damage destroyed schools, homes and businesses, leaving many parts of the town unrecognizable, Kevin Welz told CNN’s iReport.

“It is something you would expect to see in an end-of-the-world movie,” he said.

Pamela Rawlings described how her parents went to the middle of their one-story Henryville home for safety. After a tornado ripped through, a neighbor rushed over to find the long-time couple about 30 feet apart — with Pamela’s 64-year-old father, Wayne Hunter, discovered dead and her mother, Lenora, bloodied but alive.

In Salem, about 20 miles west of Henryville, a toddler who had survived the storm died Sunday afternoon after family members took her off life support, Jefferson County Coroner Bob Jones said.

The 14-month-old girl had been in critical condition, surrounded by extended family members at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, said hospital spokesman Brian Rublein. Her immediate family — including her parents, 3-year-old brother and 2-month-old sister — were all killed in the storm.

In addition to the dead, hospitals continued to treat scores suffering from major trauma to minor injuries related to sudden ferocious spurts of high winds, powerful hail and drenching rains.

Obama offered his condolences and federal assistance if needed to the governors of Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, the White House said in a statement.

Beyond immediate goals of providing safety and security, as well as finding places to sleep for those who had been displaced, residents and officials from West Liberty to Henryville and beyond voiced a common desire to preserve and rebuild their communities.

“We’re knocked down, but we’re not knocked out,” said Kasich, the Ohio governor. “We’re going to get through it.”

Beshear said residents in West Liberty and other parts of his state were showing their resilience.

“It’s going to be a long, long time to get that town back on its feet, but somehow or another I know they’ll want to do it, I know they will do it, and we’re going to help them do it,” he said.

Credit: CNN. CNN’s Chris Dignam, Joe Sutton, Susan Candiotti, Athena Jones, Eric Marrapodi, Moni Basu, Melanie Whitley, Kara Devlin, Maria P. White, Miguel Susana, Greg Botelho and Nicole Saidi contributed to this report.