US Bible Belt begins clear-up after the worst tornadoes in 20 years

Dazed survivors of the worst tornadoes to hit the American Bible Belt in more than two decades surveyed the wreckage of their flattened homes yesterday, as state and federal clean-up crews herded them into temporary shelters and started to tackle downed power lines, severed gas pipes, fallen trees and debris as far as the eye could see.

At least 55 people were killed in an estimated 80 separate tornadoes that hit the states of Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama on Tuesday night and early hours of Wednesday. George Bush, still haunted by memories of his administration's calamitously slow response to Hurricane Katrina two-and-a-half years ago, dispatched his Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, to Tennessee, the worst affected of the five states, and made plans to pay a visit of his own today. "Prayers can help, and so can the government," he said.

In a part of the country where the volatility of the weather, and swarms of giant insects, gives a special resonance to Old Testament tales of pestilence and plague, many locals alluded to the wrath of God as they told near-biblical tales of calamity.A baby was discovered alive and unscathed in a field in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, across from a wrecked post office, evoking memories of the Moses story. In Atkins, Arkansas, Terri Thomas described her Samson-like feat of holding up one wall of her house, which would have crushed her and her family if shehad given way.

The Tennessee Governor, Phil Bredesen, surveyedthe damage and said: "It looks like the Lord took a Brillo pad and scrubbed the ground."

Thirty-one people were reported killed in Tennessee, which bore the brunt of storms with wind speeds up to 130mph. Thirteen were killed in Arkansas, seven in Kentucky and five in Alabama.