In a display of natural fury unusual for this time of year, tornadoes and violent thunderstorms have killed at least 50 people in five south-central states. VOA's Greg Flakus reports.

Rescue crews are hard at work in a wide area hit by tornadoes overnight Tuesday.  In Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky storms killed and injured people and damaged homes and places of business. In many areas power lines are down and streets are filled with debris. 

One of the worst hit areas was Jackson, Tennessee, where local resident Michael Denny described what the storm's devastation.

"Next thing I know, where they were, the windows were being shattered and the apartment complex up there they had a bench go through one window and some branches and a tree flipped over and I pulled it out with my truck and as I got done pulling it out of the roadway up there, a neighbour called me and said that my roof was out in the road," he said.

Eight students were trapped during the night in a heavily-damaged dormitory building on the campus of Union University in Jackson.  Some 50 students were hospitalized, but none were reported in serious condition.

A twister also destroyed many homes in Atkins, Arkansas, about 100 kilometers northwest of Little Rock. Among the dead there were an 11-year-old girl and her parents. Near Nashville, Tennessee, the storm damaged a natural gas-pumping station and caused a spectacular fire. In Memphis, storms tore off the roof of a Sears store and damaged warehouses and other buildings.

In Washington, President Bush promised federal help for the stricken areas.

"This administration is reaching out to state officials," he said.  "I just called the governors of affected states.  I wanted them to know that this government will help them, but more importantly, I wanted them to be able to tell the people in their states that the American people hold them.  Hold those who suffer up in prayer."

The storms hit during the Super Tuesday primaries and caused a disruption of voting in both Arkansas and Tennessee.  Some of the presidential candidates, including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, mentioned the storms in their election night speeches and expressed sympathy for the victims.

Weather experts say winter tornadoes are not unheard of, but that storms this early in February are somewhat rare.  Some studies indicate such storms are more frequent during years when the so-called La Nina effect is present in the Pacific Ocean.  Tornadoes usually occur from late winter through the summer months, but the violent windstorms struck areas from Illinois to Oklahoma on 8 January of this year and experts say they can happen anytime when the conditions are right.