The death toll from severe storms that punished five Southern U.S. states has risen to 281, with Alabama officials confirming 195 of those deaths. Mississippi officials reported 32 dead in that state and Tennessee raised its report to 34. Another 15 have been killed in Georgia, 5 in Virginia and one in Kentucky.
President Barack Obama is visiting Alabama today to view damage and meet with Gov. Robert Bentley and with families devastated by the storms. Obama on Wednesday approved Bentley's request for emergency federal assistance, including search and rescue assets.
As many as a million people were still without power in Alabama Thursday. The governor said 2,000 national guard troops were helping to search devastated areas for people still missing.
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.
"I don't think the damage we're seeing is close to the worst, even," The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore said in Tuscaloosa Thursday. "This is an awful situation. There is just so much debris. Thousands of buildings are just completely demolished."
At Stephanie's Flowers, owner Bronson Englebert used the headlights from two delivery vans to see what valuables he could remove. He had closed early, which was a good thing. The storm blew out the front of his store, pulled down the ceiling and shattered the windows, leaving only the curtains flapping in the breeze.
"It even blew out the back wall, and I've got bricks on top of two delivery vans now," Englebert said.
A group of students stopped to help Englebert, carrying out items like computers and printers and putting them in his van. "They've been awfully good to me so far," Englebert said.
The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out. The governors in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia issued emergency declarations for parts of their states.
"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," President Obama said in a statement.