The tornado that slammed into DeKalb County, Ala., leaving 33 miles of death and destruction, was an EF4 packing winds of up to 175 mph, according to a preliminary report from the National Weather Service. It was the second of two tornadoes to hit the county that day, the weather service said.
At least 33 people were killed, hundreds injured and a wide swath of homes obliterated in a line that runs about parallel to state Highway 75, but east of that road.
"This was a whole other level - the length and width is highly unusual," said Kris White, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, Ala., who was in Rainsville on Friday.
Meteorologists have determined two tornadoes hit the county Wednesday afternoon. They initially thought it was all one tornado, White said. The first hit in the northeastern end of the county near the Jackson area about 4:30 p.m. before barreling into Dade County and Trenton, Ga. That tornado has not been rated on the Fujita scale.
The second was much worse, beginning about an hour later in Lakeview and continuing through Fyffe, Rainsville, Sylvania, Henagar and Ider before ending in Cartersville. The storm was about a half-mile wide in some of the hardest-hit areas and widened to three-fourths mile farther north, White said.
The path of the two tornadoes almost touched, which led officials at first to think it had been only one, White said.
The main tornado had some characteristics of an EF5 - the highest on the Fujita scale - such as obliterated homes, but other factors pointed to a lower scale, he said.
Less than 2 percent of all tornadoes are rated EF4, but the storms Wednesday had quite a few with that rating, White said. So far only one, in Smithville, Miss., has been rated EF5.
The death toll in the county remains fluid, with the official reported number upped from 32 to 33 Saturday. However, the Fort Payne Times-Journal reported that Rainsville Fire Chief Thomas Ridgeway said 37 had been killed.
On Friday, Chief Deputy Michael Edmondson said the official number reflected only those brought to the emergency management agency's office command center at Farmer's Telephone Cooperative.
Diane McMichen, a spokeswoman for DeKalb Regional Medical Center, said Friday officials know that some of the most seriously injured victims who were transferred to Chattanooga, Huntsville and Birmingham hospitals did not survive, but she did not have any numbers.
A few areas in Rainsville and Fort Payne had power restored Saturday, but power outages remain widespread, according to the emergency command center in Rainsville.
Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at email@example.com or 706-980-5824.