HENRYVILLE, Ind. – At the 103-year-old dream home on a hill that Roger Ledbetter had restored, Sunday was burial day.
The house had been knocked off its foundation and ruined by killer twisters. A neighbor worked a backhoe to carve open a grave for three of Ledbetter's seven horses, so badly injured they had to be put down. Shep the dog had already been buried. A search was underway for the family cat, Miss Beasley.
Yet for all the tears and tragedy that weather delivered along the miles of winding country road here, Ledbetter says, it could have been far worse. His in-laws, who were living in the farmhouse that he rebuilt for his future retirement, had enough warning of the storms' approach to leave for safer ground.
"Thank God we had enough warning that I could convince my in-laws to leave," says Ledbetter, 54, who owns a plywood company in New Albany.
Officials and survivors of the storms say warnings provided by weather forecasters and relayed through news reports, e-mail and other alert systems, coupled with neighbors passing the word house to house, kept the toll from growing higher.
Even with the heartfelt optimism here, it might be months or years before some towns recover from the tornadoes of 2012. And one of the symbols of that recovery — a 15-month baby who was the sole survivor of her family — died Sunday.
At least 39 people were killed as volatile weather across a broad swath of the south and central part of the country triggered at least 74 tornadoes in 10 states over several days. Five states — Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Alabama and Georgia— suffered fatalities.
The stricken areas were still assessing the damage, but as of Sunday night, Indiana had declared states of emergency in 11 counties, Ohio in one county and Kentucky declared a statewide emergency. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear requested a federal declaration. Twenty-two of the 46 counties hit by the storm in his state had declared states of emergency.
The storms destroyed homes, farms and businesses and knocked out power, cellphones and Internet service.
In New Pekin, Ind., 15-month-old Angel Babcock, found alive Friday in a field near where the rest of her family was killed, died of traumatic brain injury at a Louisville hospital. Her family — parents Joseph Babcock, 21; and Moriah Brough, 20; and her siblings, Jaydon Babcock, 2, and Kendall Babcock, 2 months — all died when a violent storm destroyed their home.
Not even a week into the month, this is already the nation's deadliest March for tornadoes since March 1994, when 40 people were killed, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
The National Weather Service's Joe Sullivan calls the advance notice of the storms "a great success of the entire warning program." Without it, he says, "there could have been scores" of fatalities.
Annette Cartwright says a firetruck crew stopped Friday at her home in Chelsea, Ind., to warn that a severe storm was approaching. Her mother-in-law, daughter and son-in-law took shelter in the basement and survived the winds that destroyed the home over their heads and the nearby barn as if "a bomb went off."
"They told them to get inside," says Cartwright, 40, who was at work.
Local TV stations "kept saying, 'This is really bad,' " she recalls. "The warnings saved three lives at my house."
Chelsea, an unincorporated community that's more a sprawling neighborhood than a town, has no warning sirens, Cartwright says, but most nearby towns do. "We can sometimes hear the ones in New Washington," she says.
Retiree Jim Gray, 62, who also lives in Chelsea, had enough warning to pick up his 6-year-old grandson from school Friday. They went to the basement of Gray's home, which was not damaged.
"Everybody knew it was coming," says Gray, who first heard about the potential for tornadoes on Wednesday. "They kept saying, 'It's going to be a bad one.' "
In Henryville, birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland Sanders, few buildings are recognizable. The rural road to Maryville and Chelsea is a trail of tragedy, almost every home and barn damaged. Bare concrete pads are all that remain of some homes.
The National Weather Service says one of two tornadoes that whipped through Henryville had winds of 175 mph. Debris was found 68 miles away.
A restored church leveled
A couple miles from Ledbetter's 100-acre farm is a sign that says "Mt. Moriah Church. Have you talked to Jesus today?"
It's all that's left. A pile of brick and wood lies where the church once stood. Sanders, the late fried chicken magnate, paid for a previous restoration after a fire. In a cemetery across the road, the graves of his parents are covered with fallen trees and pink insulation from the church.
At Ledbetter's ruined home — where horses Freckles, Wilma and Henry were being laid to rest — his barn is gone. So is a six-car garage and a flagpole. The U.S. flag that flew from it was found, dirty and tattered, by a neighbor. He hung it over a piece of fence left standing.
"When I see that flag," Ledbetter says, choking up, "it really gets to me."
Search-and-rescue crews made second runs of wrecked buildings on Sunday. A sheriff's deputy pointed to a pile of rubble where a mother protecting her kids was injured, costing her both her legs. At another house, the owner was extricated with a broken back. Thousands of trees are cracked. Muddy cars lie in ditches on their roofs.
Buddy Rogers, spokesman for the Kentucky Emergency Management agency, says the advance notice saved lives in that state as well. Twenty-one people died and 300 were injured as storms ripped through 46 of the state's 120 counties, he said.
"When you see firsthand the overall destruction, you have to wonder, my gosh. We were blessed that there were not more fatalities," he says.
The state does not know yet what rebuilding will look like because it is still assessing the damage and its costs, he says.
"This won't be a speedy recovery, but we'll do it," he says. "Kentuckians are resilient."
He says the National Weather Service provided forecasts as early as two days before the storms hit, giving residents time to prepare and evacuate. He says the longer-range forecasts help more than the outdoor sirens, which sound just 10 to 20 minutes before a tornado hits.
National Weather Service meteorologists say they can tell up to eight days in advance if a severe storm will hit a particular region of the U.S. What they can't do is track a specific twister far in advance.
Forecasts for tornadoes and the storms that create them have gotten better, but tracking a tornado is still an imprecise science because the storms are small, unpredictable and short, says Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center.
"Trying to look at something as elusive as a tornado is difficult," he says. "It can form in a matter of minutes and dissipate in a matter of minutes."
Meteorologists can pinpoint a tornado on average about 10 to 30 minutes before it hits. Radar helps with educated guesses about a tornado and its path, and they used eyewitness accounts, too, Carbin says.
Forecasts for tornadoes, or storms that lead to tornadoes, have gotten considerably better since the 1950s, when the National Weather Service began using radar and computer models to track the paths of storms, says Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
Today, more than 75% of tornadoes are identified, he says. Less than 30 years ago, it was about 25%.
Brooks says better forecasting with the help of radar and computer models has helped reduce fatalities. Better ways of spreading the information and stronger housing construction also play a huge role, he says.
Last year, tornadoes left 550 people dead.
"In the modern world, we think of that as a catastrophic loss of life," he says. "That would have been an ordinary year for our great-grandparents."
Knowing several days in advance that a storm could lead to a tornado helps individuals, counties, hospitals and other officials prepare.
But, Brooks says, it still comes down to people reacting to the information: "No matter how good your warning system is, it depends on how people are responding."
Roger Jones, 60, listened to the warnings. After the storms hit, he surveyed damage to the farmhouse where he grew up and where his father was born in Chelsea. It took a direct hit from a falling tree but was unoccupied. A grain bin was damaged, a machine shed was destroyed and a barn was blown away, but Jones, who lives 4 miles away, feels lucky.
His mother, who lived in the house until her death in 2008, would have refused to leave despite the warnings, he says.
"The warning system was very adequate" and saved lives, he says. "Everyone knew that this tornado was coming and that it would be on the ground a long time," he says. "They were absolutely right on."
Jay Casper, 43, was helping salvage possessions from his mother-in-law's Marysville home Sunday. A tornado sliced off the roof. He was grateful that she was at his home in Bloomington, Ind., when the twister struck. The town has no warning sirens, he said.
There's been talk in the past of the need for sirens, says Casper, who works at a lumber company, "and I bet there will be now."
Bello and Rice reported from McLean, Va.; Welch from Los Angeles. Contributing: the Associated Press