BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) - Stunned Alabamans picked through rubble today after tornadoes killed more than 200 people in the state and left 1 million without power across the South. Downtown Tuscaloosa was devastated; at least 36 died there and the death toll was expected to rise across the South as rescuers continue searching through rubble.
The storms that started began early Wednesday left at least five dead in the Birmingham area, and almost 200,000 people without power. More than 300 people have been reported dead across the South, more than 210 of them in Alabama.
In Alabama Wednesday, morning commuters had to wend their away around trees and rubble, with no help from dead traffic lights. Schools and businesses closed early in anticipation of a second set of storms, which hit in the afternoon, spawning tornados throughout the region that leveled buildings, tossed cars and ripped the bark completely off trees.
Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama, was blown apart by a mile-wide tornado that bore down on the popular intersection at McFarland Boulevard and 15th Street.
A shopping area housing a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop, Milo's Hamburger and Full Moon Bar-B-Que restaurants and a Chevron gas station took a direct hit. All that's left there is a pile of rubble.
Cell phone service was limited and parents were having a hard time getting hold of their students at UA.
University of Alabama sophomore Daragh Kavanagh said he didn't take the storm warnings too seriously after living in Texas and Alabama for most of his life.
Kavanagh was in class when tornado sirens blared and college officials told students, through loudspeakers, to take shelter.
"It was not like elementary school, where they make you stay in the building," Kavanaugh said. "People were leaving in their cars. I was still thinking that nothing was going to happen."
Kavanagh went to his apartment and turned on the TV. He "started thinking it might be bad" when he couldn't see the word "Tuscaloosa" on the weather map because of all the thunderstorm and tornado symbols.
The tornado skirted the college campus. Kavanagh says he saw only "lots of rain and high wind" when the storm passed and his apartment didn't lose power.
After the storm passed, he said, the city "doesn't even look like Tuscaloosa. It's just a bunch of rubble. I can't even think about the families that have lost loved ones. I was very dumb and should have taken this more seriously. I'll always remember this and that I was one of the lucky ones."
Kavanagh and his roommate opened their apartment to other students without power, so they can cook food, get a shower or charge their cell phones.
The university has canceled finals, scheduled for next week. Commencement exercises have been rescheduled for Aug. 6.
The National Weather Service received more than 130 reports of tornadoes on Wednesday, just over 100 of them from Alabama and Mississippi, the second hardest-hit state, with 32 deaths reported. It's the biggest tornado outbreak in 40 years.
Hard-hit areas in Alabama include the counties of Cullman, DeKalb, Franklin, Jefferson, Lawrence, Marshall, Tuscaloosa and Walker. Many small, rural towns are in ruins.
Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency and President Obama signed a disaster declaration so Alabama can receive federal aid. The president was scheduled to tour the destruction in Tuscaloosa today (Friday).
With thousands homeless, the community is coming together to help with clothing, food, water and other necessary items. Local radio and television stations have set up disaster relief areas where they are collecting donations.
Donors can text the word "REDCROSS" to 90999 to make a $10 donation to the American Red Cross, or visit the Governor's Tornado Relief Fund at: http://www.servealabama.gov/2010/2011%20Tornadoes/Response.aspx
Donations can be made to the Salvation Army by logging onto www.salvationarmyusa.org, by calling 1-800-SALARMY or by texting the word "GIVE" to 80888 to make a $10 donation.
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