LOS ANGELES — Steven Huntsman didn’t want to go downstairs with his girlfriend and 15-month-old son. After all, he reasoned, it was just a storm.
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Then everything shook. The windows broke. His face was peppered with broken glass.
He locked himself into a second-story closet and listened as the once-stationary objects that constituted his world — cars, trees, houses, barns — began hovering and slamming into one another.
Minutes later, he smashed his way out of the closet whose door was stuck. Instead of ceiling, he saw stars. He saw piles of wood that had once been the houses of Akersville Road. There were people bleeding and people screaming. A trailer across the street was on fire.
“I’ve never seen nothing like this,” Huntsman, 25, said Wednesday. He was trying to find what was worth saving among the shreds of his home that were left.
Across a broad swath of the South on Wednesday, search and rescue teams scoured damaged buildings for survivors, and families scrambled through heaps of debris for their precious things after dozens of tornadoes swept through five states Tuesday evening.
By day’s end the official death toll had reached 54, and authorities worried it would get worse, marking the tornado disaster as the nation’s deadliest in nearly a decade. More than 200 were injured.
The dead included 30 people in Tennessee, 13 in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and four in Alabama. Mississippi also suffered severe damage.
President Bush called the governors of the five states to extend his support and vowed that he would speedily respond to requests for emergency aid.
“Loss of life, a lot of loss of property — prayers can help and so can the government,” Bush said, adding, “I do want the people in those states to know the American people are standing with them.”
In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe spent Wednesday morning touring the devastation in Pope County, where the dead included a family of three whose home took a direct hit.
“They lived in what you’d call a stick-built home on a foundation, and it was just totally wiped out,” said the county coroner, Leonard Krout. “Trees — 100-year-old hardwoods — were snapped like little twigs. But there was not a single shingle missing from a house nearby.”
In Tennessee, the deaths were scattered from the west through the midsection of the state, said Laura McPherson, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
In southeast Memphis, three forklift operators were killed when a warehouse roof collapsed. In Fayette County, a driver died after his truck overturned.
Powerful winds crumbled buildings on the campus of Union University — a small Southern Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn., with about 3,000 students — trapping many in dormitories. About 50 students were taken to a hospital, and all 13 dorm buildings were seriously damaged. Only an indoor baseball and soccer facility emerged intact.
“The college is pretty much ruins,” said Chris Brazzell, deputy director for emergency management in Madison County. Yet no one was reported killed — an outcome that school officials attributed to students’ alert response to the warning sirens and their valiant efforts to help one another after the storm.
Sophomore Jonathan Skagfield, 19, ran for shelter in a bathroom. Just as he closed the door, his living room windows shattered.
“If we had been a second later, we would have got pretty messed up,” he said.
In Macon County, 90 minutes north of Nashville and near the Kentucky border, 13 people were reported killed. People here are familiar with the threat of tornadoes; they remember a couple of years ago when the nearby town of Gallatin was torn up. The debris flew into Macon County from miles away. One man remembers seeing Gallatin mail in his yard.
Yet those memories still seemed removed from their reality — until now. June Spears, 46, was gathering what was left of her belongings.
A trailer had smashed into her tiny cottage, which caved in. Windows were broken, the roof looked like Swiss cheese, and around her was junk and piles where buildings had been.
“I just can’t believe it. I feel like at any minute I’m going to wake up,” she said, trudging through an exposed and muddy living room. “Like Katrina and stuff — you see it on TV, but you just don’t even think about it happening to you.”
In Lafayette, the county seat, the traditional small-town square was still a picture postcard. A few miles away, however, 40-foot trees had been uprooted. Flimsier homes were reduced to piles of sticks, and sturdy ones were mangled or maimed.
“It’s indiscriminate destruction,” said Willie Womack of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He arrived in Lafayette before sunrise Wednesday and estimated that about a third of the residential buildings were demolished.
In Kentucky, the worst-hit area appeared to be Muhlenberg County on the state’s west end, where a family of three died in a mobile-home park and pieces of homes littered roadways.
“The whole state was pretty much hit by the squall line that came through,” said First Lt. Stephen Martin, a Kentucky National Guard spokesman. “It’s so hard right now to get a handle on how many people are injured, but it is a lot.”
In Alabama, by the time tornadoes hit early Wednesday, many people were sleeping. A couple and their son, 20, were killed just after 3 a.m. in Aldridge Grove to the state’s north. Barely two hours later, a woman died after a twister slammed her house in Pisgah, 80 miles east.
The National Weather Service said it received 78 reports of tornadoes and 118 reports of large hail from Texas to Ohio. The same tornado can touch down multiple times, however, so the official figure often drops once officials examine the reports.
Though states such as Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska comprise the high-storm area known as Tornado Alley, weather experts point out that Southeastern states also have a high incidence of deadly tornadoes in an area called Dixie Alley.
Dixie Alley tornadoes, which tend to occur in winter and spring as opposed to spring and summer for Tornado Alley, have been deadlier in recent decades, partly because the Southern states are more populous.
“Some of the worst tornado outbreaks in American history have happened in Dixie Alley,” said John Gordon, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service station in Louisville, Ky., who was in the field tracking storms Wednesday.