The death toll approached 300 on Thursday as rescuers dug through rubble from Mississippi to Virginia in the nation's deadliest natural...

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The death toll approached 300 on Thursday as rescuers dug through rubble from Mississippi to Virginia in the nation’s deadliest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina.

It was what they call a tornado outbreak, something rarely seen on such a scale. Not since April 3, 1974, has the United States witnessed so much destruction from twisters, and experts say Wednesday may go down as the most destructive outbreak in eight decades.

The death toll — 297 and certain to go higher — seems out of a bygone era, before Doppler radar and pinpoint satellite forecasts were around to warn communities of severe weather. Residents were told the tornadoes were coming up to 24 minutes ahead of time, but the twisters were too wide, too powerful and too locked onto populated areas to avoid a horrifying body count.

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Tornado watches were issued into Thursday night along nearly the entire East Coast — from Georgia to the Boston area — a designation that carries the possibility of severe storms and winds in excess of 100 mph.

Alabama took the most brutal pounding Wednesday, the entire state scarred by a monster funnel cloud that crossed the state on a track that struck Tuscaloosa head-on and chewed through the Birmingham suburbs, 60 miles away, before exiting into Georgia.

A tower-mounted news camera in Tuscaloosa captured images of the astonishingly thick, powerful tornado flinging debris as it leveled neighborhoods.

At least 210 Alabamans lost their lives, 36 in Tuscaloosa alone. Hundreds — possibly thousands — were injured, officials said.

“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.”

Eric Hamilton, 40, lived in a poor area of Tuscaloosa called Alberta City, which residents now describe as “gone.” He wiped tears off his cheeks.

“I’ve never seen so many bodies,” he said. “Babies, women. So many bodies.”

President Obama, who called the damage “nothing short of catastrophic,” will tour the devastated region Friday before going to Florida for the space-shuttle launch.

W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was in Alabama on Thursday, touring areas damaged by the storms and meeting with Gov. Robert Bentley. About 2,000 National Guard troops and hundreds more police and fire crews were digging through the hardest-hit areas looking for the dead and survivors.

Damage was made worse by earlier storms, which left the ground so soaked that, instead of winds just snapping trees and branches, they uprooted entire trees and tossed them onto power lines, said Michael Sznajderman, a spokesman for Alabama Power Co.

He said at least 335,000 customers were without power and that, with more storms on the way, “the number of outages could be as high as what we saw with Hurricane Ivan or Hurricane Katrina.”

“It’s almost total disbelief,” said Phyllis Little, director of emergency management for Cullman County, a largely rural area of 82,000 peppered with small towns. “The county courthouse lost its roof. The Baptist church has a skeleton for a steeple. Old buildings that have been there for hundreds of years have just collapsed.”

The entire county is without power, and emergency responders are operating on natural-gas generators. Little has been turning away volunteers who have called her office, offering to come to Cullman to help.

“Fuel is an issue for us,” she said. “We’re struggling to provide that to the emergency-response agencies. If you don’t live here or have business here, don’t come.”

Local TV stations captured stunning footage of the squat, black maelstrom as it chewed a path through Tuscaloosa shortly before dusk Wednesday, riding along an interstate highway, and coming within a mile of the football stadium that is home to the fabled Crimson Tide.

The university has closed, canceling final exams and postponing graduation exercises until August. Power outages shut down most forms of communication, but students found they still could track the news through Twitter.

“Somehow, the Twitter feeds keep coming,” said Ian Sams, 22, a senior. “You’d see people tweeting from shelters saying, ‘We need blankets, we need diapers, if you can bring them, bring them.’ “

As with any tornado, the destruction could seem capricious, with obliterated areas bracketed by neighborhoods that were merely a bit windblown.

“There’s very little middle ground. Either you took a beating, like you really were just devastated by it or — I went to my parents’ house, and they have power and it’s just another day,” said Brandi Freeman, 21, a senior.

Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency said 31 of the state’s 67 counties have reported damage. Most are in the central and northern parts of the state.

“This was the big one,” said James-Paul Dice, chief meteorologist at WBRC Fox 6 in Birmingham. “A monster of a storm.”

In Pleasant Grove, a middle-class suburb of Birmingham, nearly all trees are down, and roads have been blocked by police. Most houses have been destroyed, some torn off their foundations. Cars had been flipped.

The large metal sign of the Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church had been knocked at a 45-degree angle.

Sharon Blue, 57, a real-estate appraiser, said she barely survived — huddled in her laundry room, clutching her two dogs, Sugar and Anna, and praying.

That room was one of the few in her one-story, red-brick house that had not been destroyed. The roof was blown off, the house shifted on its foundation. Blue said her refrigerator had flown across the house and had nearly slammed into her.

“I thought the whole house was just going to take off,” she said. “It was like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ I just held my little dogs and prayed.”

She escaped with slight cuts on her legs.

In Mississippi, the carnage was worst in the piney hill country in the northeastern part of the state. Thirteen of the 33 dead in the state were from Smithville, a tiny town south of Tupelo. Most of the buildings in Smithville, which has fewer than 800 residents, were gone.

Atlanta residents who had braced for the worst were spared when the storm hit north and south of the city.

Half of Georgia’s 15 victims were killed in Catoosa County, including in Ringgold, where a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings and trapped an unknown number of people.

Many rural schools sustained so much damage that they will close for the rest of the year.

In a large section of eastern Tennessee, where 33 people died, officials were looking for survivors and assessing damage. Eight people were killed in hard-hit Apison, an unincorporated community near the Georgia state line.

That this would be a day of severe storms had been known days in advance, thanks to computer models of the weather pattern. But Birmingham meterologist Dice said he was shocked Wednesday morning at some of the numbers he was seeing.

He said there is a measure of potential tornadic activity known as the “energy helicity index.” Anything in the range of 3 or 4 would suggest a possible tornado, and he was stunned to see, on Monday, a forecast of a 6 for Wednesday. Then, on Wednesday morning, the index jumped to 14.

“It was off the charts,” Dice said. “This was almost like made-up numbers.”

Meteorologists are on the ground examining the damage to try to get a precise handle on the number of distinct tornadoes and their intensity. What seems certain is that this was the worst day for twisters in America since Richard Nixon was in the White House.

“The outbreak is the biggest in terms of tornadoes and in terms of impact since ’74, and it’s possible that it’s actually bigger than ’74,” said Harold Brooks, research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

The April 3, 1974, outbreak sparked twisters across the eastern U.S., claiming 310 lives, Brooks said.

Wednesday’s outbreak may be most similar to the tornado outbreak of March 21, 1932, when 332 people were killed, including 268 in Alabama, he said.

Nothing, however, comes close to March 18, 1925, when 695 people died, mostly along the path of a single twister, the so-called Tri-State Tornado that tore up Missouri, Indiana and Illinois.

Compiled from The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Associated Press

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