The death toll soared to near 300 Thursday as rescuers dug through the rubble of razed neighborhoods from Mississippi to Virginia in the nation's deadliest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina.
At least 290 people across six states died in the storms, with more than two-thirds — 204 people — in Alabama. Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, was in some places shorn to the slab and accounts for at least 36 of those deaths.
"This place looks like a war zone," Jackie Wuska Hurt, director of development for the honors college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, wrote in an e-mail. "Folks looked like refugees walking single file with suitcases or grocery carts of their belongings down the sidewalks of University Boulevard."
President Barack Obama, who called the damage "nothing short of catastrophic," will tour the devastated region today before going to Florida for the space shuttle launch. In a statement, he said the federal government had pledged its assistance.
The tornadoes injured thousands, and untold more have been left homeless, hauling their belongings in garbage bags or rooting through disgorged piles of wood and siding to find anything salvageable.
While Alabama was hit the hardest, the storm spared few states across the South. Thirty-three people were reported dead in Tennessee, 33 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Kentucky. With search and rescue crews still climbing through debris and making their way down tree-strewn country roads, the toll is expected to rise.
"History tells me estimating deaths is a bad business," W. Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said in a conference call with reporters.
Cries could be heard into the night Wednesday in Tuscaloosa but on Thursday, hope was dwindling. Mayor Walt Maddox said the search and rescue operation would go for another 24 to 48 hours, before the response pivots its focus to recovery.
"They're looking for five kids in this rubble here," said Lathesia Jackson-Gibson, 33, a nurse, pointing to the heap of planks and household appliances sitting next to the muddled guts of her own house. "They're mostly small kids."
Ala. Gov. Robert Bentley toured the state by helicopter along with federal officials, tracking a vast scar that stretched from Birmingham to his hometown, Tuscaloosa. He declared Alabama "a major, major disaster."
"As we flew down from Birmingham, the track is all the way down, and then when you get in Tuscaloosa here it's devastating," Bentley said at an afternoon news conference.
An enormous response operation was under way across the South, with emergency officials working alongside churches, sororities and other volunteer groups. In Alabama, more than 2,000 National Guard troops were deployed.
Across nine states, more than 1,680 people spent Wednesday in Red Cross shelters, said Attie Poirier, a spokeswoman with the organization. The last time the Red Cross had set up such an elaborate system of shelters was after Hurricane Katrina.
As of Thursday evening, there had been 173 reports of twisters touching down Wednesday, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.; 104 of them came from Alabama and Mississippi.
Storm Prediction Center research meteorologist Harold Brooks said the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa could be an EF5 — the strongest category of tornado, with winds of more than 200 mph — and was at least the second-highest category, an EF4.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that there were 164 tornadoes Wednesday. Preliminary data from the National Weather Service show that nearly 300 twisters have touched down in April, smashing the existing record of 267 set in 1974.
None of the outbreaks this month comes close to matching the "Super Outbreak" of April 3-4, 1974, when more than 148 tornadoes were confirmed and 330 people were killed. That outbreak had seven storms that were rated F-5 intensity and 23 that were rated F-4 on the old Fujita damage scale.
Southerners, who have had to learn the drill all too well this month, watched with dread Wednesday night as the shape-shifting storm system crept eastward across the weather map. Upon hearing the rumble of a tornado, or even the hysterical barking of a family dog, people crammed into closets, bathtubs and restaurant coolers, clutching their children and family photos.
Some emerged to the open sky, where their roof had been, some yelled until other family members pulled the shelves and walls off them. Others never got out.
Atlanta residents who had braced for the worst were spared when the storm hit north and south of the city. Across Georgia, many schools in rural areas sustained so much damage they will close for the rest of the year.
In Mississippi, the carnage was worst in the piney hill country in the northeastern part of the state. Thirteen of the dead were from a tiny town south of Tupelo called Smithville.
More than 1 million people in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee were left without power, with much of the loss caused by severe damage to transmitters at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant west of Huntsville, Ala. The plant itself was not damaged, but the dozens of poles that carry electricity to local power companies were down.
"We have no place to send the power at this point," said Scott Brooks, a spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which sells electricity to companies in seven states. "We're not talking hours, we're talking days."
In Tuscaloosa, Bentley, a Republican, made it clear that Alabama would need substantial federal assistance.
"We're going to have to have help from the federal government in order to get through this in an expeditious way," he said.
Information from the New York Times, Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and the Associated Press was used in this report.