WEST LIBERTY, Ky. - Across the South and Midwest, survivors emerged yesterday to find blue sky and splinters where homes once stood, cars were flung into buildings, and communications were crippled after dozens of tornadoes chainsawed through a region of millions, leveling small towns along the way.
At least 38 people were killed in five states, but a 2-year-old girl was somehow found alive and alone in a field near her Indiana home. Her family did not survive. A couple that fled their home for the safety of a restaurant basement made it, even after the storms threw a school bus into their makeshift shelter.
Yesterday was filled with such stories, told as emergency officials trudged with search dogs past knocked-down cellphone towers and ruined homes looking for survivors in rural Kentucky and Indiana, marking searched roads and homes with orange paint. President Obama offered federal assistance, and Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, declared an emergency yesterday.
The worst damage appeared centered in the small towns of southern Indiana and eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian foothills. No building was untouched and few were recognizable in West Liberty, Ky., about 90 miles from Lexington, where two white police cruisers were picked up and tossed into City Hall.
In East Bernstadt, two hours to the southwest, Carol Rhodes clutched four VHS tapes she had found in debris of her former home as she sobbed under a bright sun.
“It was like whoo, that was it,’’ said Rhodes, 63, who took refuge with four family members in a basement bedroom that she had just refinished for a grandchild.
“Honey, I felt the wind and I said, ‘Oh my God,’ and then [the house] was gone. I looked up and I could see the sky.’’
The spate of storms was the second in little more than 48 hours, after an earlier round killed 13 people in the Midwest and South, and the latest in a string of severe-weather episodes that have ravaged the American heartland in the past year.
Friday’s violent storms touched down in at least a dozen states from Georgia to Illinois, killing 19 people in Kentucky, 14 in Indiana, three in Ohio, and one each in Alabama and Georgia. They scarred the landscape over hundreds of miles, leaving behind a trail of shredded sheet metal, insulation, gutted churches, crunched-up cars, and even a fire hydrant.
The trailer that was once the home of Viva Johnson’s mother was sitting in a graveyard, covering the dead alongside downed trees and other debris. “You can’t even tell where the headstones are,’’ said Johnson, who lives in Pulaski County, Ky.
In Indiana, a toddler was found alone in a field near her family’s home after a tornado hit in New Pekin. Authorities learned she is the sole survivor of her immediate family, said Cis Gruebbel, a spokeswoman for Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Ky.
The girl’s mother, father, 2-month-old sister, and 2-year-old brother all died Friday, the Washington County coroner said. She is in critical condition with members of her extended family at the hospital, and officials are trying to determine how she ended up in the field.
About 20 miles east, a twister demolished Henryville, Ind., the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland “Colonel’’ Sanders. The second story of the elementary school was torn off, one of the city’s three schools lost to weather; the punishing winds blew out the windows and gutted the Henryville Community Presbyterian Church.
A school secretary said a bus left the city’s high school Friday afternoon with 11 children, but the driver turned back after realizing they were driving straight into the storm. The children hid under tables and desks at the school nurse’s station when the tornado hit; none were hurt, but the building is a total loss.
The school bus was tossed several hundred yards into the side of a nearby restaurant.