By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - The death toll from storms and tornadoes in Alabama has risen to 128 people, Governor Robert Bentley's office said on Thursday.
The storms were part of a series that have killed at least 155 people in half a dozen southern states over the last few days.
They included what may be the most violent twister ever to hit Alabama. It slammed into the college town of Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, killing 15 people, crushing houses, picking up cars and uprooting trees by the hundred.
"Everybody says it (a tornado) sounds like a train and I started to hear the train," Anthony Foote, a resident of Tuscaloosa whose house was badly damaged, told Reuters. "I ran and jumped into the tub and the house started shaking. Then glass started shattering."
Deaths occurred in Arkansas and Mississippi, where 11 were killed in each state, and also in Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee. But Alabama was hardest hit.
Damage in Alabama was spread over a wide area through the north and central part of the state, said Jennifer Ardis, Bentley's press secretary, and 128 people were killed across the state.
The highest toll was in Franklin county in the rural northwest of the state where 18 people died, according to figures from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
Eleven people died in Jefferson County, home to Birmingham, the state's largest city, the agency figures showed.
The storms also forced the Tennessee Valley Authority to close three nuclear reactors at a power plant in Alabama and knocked out 25 high-voltage power lines. Hundreds of thousands of homes have lost power.
"We have never experienced such a major weather event in our history," said the Tennessee Valley Authority, a U.S.-owned company that provides electricity to 9 million people in seven states.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for the state and ordered federal aid for the stricken state.
"While we may not know the extent of the damage for days, we will continue to monitor these severe storms across the country and stand ready to continue to help the people of Alabama and all citizens affected by these storms," Obama said in a statement on Wednesday night.
Authorities in Alabama and Mississippi said they expect the toll to rise as emergency workers attempt rescues and recovery in the storm's wake.
Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the U.S. South and Midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.
Governors in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee also declared a state of emergency.
Alabama's Bentley mobilized around 1,400 National Guardsmen and said they would be on the ground early on Thursday to help with search and rescue, logistics and debris removal, a statement from his office said.
"These guardsmen are well trained and will take every action necessary to protect lives and property in this emergency," Bentley said.
(Additional reporting by Peggy Gargis in Birmingham; writing by Matthew Bigg; editing by Mohammad Zargham)