JEFF BUSBY PARK, Miss. (AP) - A wave of thunderstorms with winds blowing near hurricane force strafed the South on Wednesday, killing at least 16 people from Arkansas to Alabama, including a father struck by a tree while protecting his daughter at a Mississippi campsite.
The death toll appeared likely to rise, with Alabama's governor saying there could be a half-dozen more deaths.
The system laced with tornadoes spread destruction Tuesday night and Wednesday from Texas to Georgia. An earlier flare-up of storms this week had already killed 10 people in Arkansas and one in Mississippi.
More to come
Forecasters warned that even worse weather could be on its way. The system was forecast to hit Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky on Wednesday night and then the Carolinas. Another storm system was also dumping rain on New York.
"Today is the day you want to be careful," said Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma.
On Wednesday morning, a Louisiana police officer on a camping trip in Choctaw County, Miss., was killed when a towering sweetgum tree fell onto his tent as he shielded his young daughter with his body, said Kim Korthuis, a supervisor with the National Park Service. The girl wasn't hurt.
The 9-year-old girl was brought to a motorhome about 100 feet away where campsite volunteer Greg Maier was staying with his wife, Maier said. He went back to check on the father and found him dead.
"She wasn't hurt, just scared and soaking wet," Maier said.
Her father, Lt. Wade Sharp, had been with the Covington Police Department for 19 years.
"He was a hell of an investigator," said Capt. Jack West, his colleague in Louisiana.
Also in Mississippi, a man was crushed in his mobile home when a tree fell during the storm, a truck driver died after hitting a downed tree on a state highway and a member of a county road crew was killed when he was struck by a tree they were removing. Four more Mississippi storm deaths were reported late Wednesday, but the circustances weren't immediately clear. The governor also made an emergency declaration for much of the state.
Alabama, also in a state of emergency, was the scene of at least five storm-related deaths. One woman died when her mobile home was torn to shreds, and a second woman was trapped under a mobile home elsewhere. Falling trees or limbs also killed a woman in her house, a man standing outside and a motorist in separate locations.
Another death was reported in Tuscaloosa by Mayor Walt Maddox, who told The Weather Channel that parts of the city were "obliterated."
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said officials were trying to confirm reports of six more deaths in that state.
In both Mississippi and Alabama numerous felled trees blocked roads, impeding emergency responders and those trying to leave hard-hit areas.
Austin Ransdell and a friend had to hike out of their neighborhood south of Birmingham after the house where he was living was crushed by four trees. No one was hurt.
As he walked away from the wreckage, trees and power lines crisscrossed residential streets, and police cars and utility trucks blocked a main highway.
"The house was destroyed. We couldn't stay in it. Water pipes broke; it was flooding the basement," he said. "We had people coming in telling us another storm was coming in about four or five hours, so we just packed up."
Not far away, Craig Branch was stunned by the damage.
"Every street to get into our general subdivision was blocked off. Power lines are down; trees are all over the road. I've never seen anything like that before," he said
The weather service didn't immediately confirm that the damage was caused by tornadoes, but forecasters had issued several tornado warnings and said winds blew as hard as 70 mph, just short of hurricane force. Meteorologists found themselves in the path of tornado and had to evacuate their Huntsville office.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management confirmed early Wednesday that another person died in a storm in Sharp County. Officials said the person was in a home near Arkansas Highway 230 but didn't know exactly how the person died.
Severe storms in northwest Georgia downed trees, blew out windows in a hospital and tore off part of a school roof. Much of north and central Georgia was bracing for another round of thunderstorms and a tornado watch was issued.
In eastern Tennessee, a woman was killed by falling trees in her trailer in Chattanooga. Just outside the city in Tiftonia, what appeared to be a tornado also struck at the base of the tourist peak Lookout Mountain.
Tops were snapped off trees and insulation and metal roof panels littered the ground. Police officers walked down the street, spray-painting symbols on houses they had checked for people who might be inside.