HENRYVILLE, Ind. Powerful storms leveled small towns in southern Indiana, transforming entire blocks of homes into piles of debris, tossing school buses into a home and a restaurant, and causing destruction so severe it was difficult to tell what was once there. As night fell, dazed residents shuffled through town, some looking for relatives, while rescue workers searched the rubble for survivors. The only light came from cars crawling down the streets.
From the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, the storms touched nearly all walks of life. A fire station was flattened. Roofs were ripped off schools. A prison fence was knocked down and scores of homes and businesses were destroyed. At least 28 people were killed, including 14 in Indiana, 12 in Kentucky and two in Ohio. Dozens of others were hurt in the second deadly tornado outbreak this week.
It wasn’t clear how many people were missing.
The threat of tornadoes was expected to last until late Friday for parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio. Forecasters at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said the massive band of storms put 10 million people at high risk of dangerous weather.
In Henryville, the scene was eerie and somewhat chaotic. Cellphones and landlines were not working. Hundreds of firefighters and police zipped around town. Power lines were down and cars were flipped over. People walked down the street with shopping carts full of water and food, handing it out to whoever was in need.
Aerial footage from a TV news helicopter flying over Henryville showed numerous wrecked houses, some with their roofs torn off and many surrounded by debris. The video shot by WLKY in Louisville, Ky., also showed a mangled school bus protruding from the side of a one-story building and dozens of overturned semis strewn around the smashed remains of a truck stop.
“I’m a storm chaser,” said Susie Renner of Henryville, “and I have never been this frightened before.”
Andy Bell was guarding a demolished garage until his friend could get to the business to retrieve some valuable tools Friday night. He looked around at the devastation, pointing to empty lots between a Catholic church and a Marathon station about a block away.
“There were houses from the Catholic church on the corner all the way to the Marathon station. And now it’s just a pile of rubble, all the way up,” he said. “It’s just a great …”
His voice trailed off, before he finished: “Wood sticks all the way up.”
Henryville’s high school was destroyed, and the second floor had been ripped off the middle school next door. Authorities said school was in session when the tornado hit, but there were only minor injuries there.
Classroom chairs were scattered on the ground outside, trees were uprooted and cars had huge dents from baseball-sized hail.
Ruth Simpson, of nearby Salem, came to the demolished town right after the storm hit, looking for relatives that she hadn’t been able to find.
“I can’t find them,” she said, starting to cry, and then walked away.
Forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center said the spate of storms was unusual.
“Maybe five times a year we issue what is kind of the highest risk level for us at the Storm Prediction Center,” forecaster Corey Mead said. “This is one of those days.”
Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport was closed temporarily because of debris on the runways, but one of three runways had reopened by late afternoon. A fire station was flattened and several barns were toppled in northern Kentucky across the Ohio River from the badly damaged Indiana towns.
The outbreak was also causing problems in Alabama and Tennessee, where dozens of houses were damaged. It comes two days after an earlier round of storms killed 13 people in the Midwest and South.
Thousands of schoolchildren in several states were sent home as a precaution, and other schools never opened. The Huntsville, Ala., Mayor Tommy Battle said students had to take cover as severe weather passed in the morning. “Most of the children were in schools so they were in the hallways so it worked out very well.”
An apparent tornado also damaged a state maximum security prison about 10 miles from Huntsville, but none of the facility’s approximately 2,100 inmates escaped. Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said there were no reports of injuries, but the roof was damaged on two large prison dormitories that each hold about 250 men. Part of the perimeter fence was knocked down, but the prison was secure.