AFTER THE STORM 

(UPDATED: 1:30 p.m.) Severe thunderstorms and monstrous tornadoes tore across the U.S. South Wednesday, killing at least 248 people and ravaging communities from Texas to Virginia. Officials have confirmed 162 deaths in Alabama, a number that may rise as emergency crews dig through debris. Mississippi has confirmed 32 deaths, while 32 people were also killed in Tennessee, 13 in Georgia, eight in Virginia and one in Arkansas, AccuWeather reports. That made Wednesday the deadliest day for tornadoes in the U.S. since 310 people died on April 3, 1974, and according to CNN meteorologist Sean Morris, "This could be one of the most devastating tornado outbreaks in the nation's history by the time it's over." 

Although Wednesday's storms wreaked havoc across much of the Southern U.S., Alabama received the brunt of their fury. On top of the state's staggering death toll, several cities were decimated by funnel clouds, including one reportedly mile-wide tornado that cut a path through Tuscaloosa, a city of more than 83,000. Much of the downtown area was left unrecognizable, while at least 36 people were killed and more than 100 were injured, the Tuscaloosa News reports. "I turned around and saw a dark cloud dipping down and touching the ground. From the sides of it, two other funnels were whipping out at the sides," says local resident Lafe Murray. "It was terrifying." Birmingham was even harder hit, battered by winds up to 100 mph and at least one large tornado, leaving dozens of people dead, the Birmingham News reports. Some 370,000 residents were without electricity statewide after the storm, including 170,000 in metro Birmingham alone. Officials say they face a herculean task in recovering from the storms. "It has been a disastrous day," says Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight. "But now it is time to help our neighbors."

Dozens of deadly tornadoes were also reported in Mississippi earlier in the day, and the storm system continued producing multiple twisters as it moved east-northeast into Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia late Wednesday night. "You could see lightning in the air, but you couldn't hear the thunder, that's how loud [the tornado] was," one eyewitness in Georgia's Catoosa County tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wednesday's historic storms were just the latest in a record-breaking April for tornadoes, pushing the month's total well above 300, and as President Obama acknowledged in a statement, the recovery process will likely be long and difficult. "While we may not know the extent of the damage for days, we will continue to monitor these severe storms across the country," Obama said, "and stand ready to continue to help the people of Alabama and all citizens affected by these storms."

(Sources: Associated Press, CNN, Birmingham News, Tuscaloosa News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, AccuWeather)

LAUNCH DATE 

NASA is making final preparations today for the second-to-last shuttle launch it will ever conduct, scheduled to send the space shuttle Endeavour on its last flight at 3:47 p.m. Friday. The event will be an unusually high-profile affair even for a shuttle launch, both because of its finality and because of its commander: astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering from a gunshot wound she suffered on Jan. 8. Giffords will attend Friday's launch, as will President Obama, imbuing the launch with so much symbolic importance that apparently not even a wildfire can slow things down.

Smoke wafted around Kennedy Space Center Wednesday as a brush fire burned near the spaceport's media complex, the BBC's Jonathan Amos reports, briefly raising concerns it could affect the launch. The smoke became so thick at one point that it fully obscured Endeavour from view, but even as helicopters were called in to dump water on the fire, NASA assured reporters there would be no impact on launch preparations. The fire was eventually extinguished, and NASA officials say everything so far looks good for Friday's launch to go ahead as scheduled. "Everything's in great shape," says NASA mission management chief Mike Moses.

Endeavour's official mission will be to carry equipment to the International Space Station, including a $2 billion particle physics experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. But it will also mark a penultimate step in NASA's evolution away from routine space travel, a transition that's meant to shift more responsibility to commercial space-flight companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. And for Giffords, it will mark a major milestone in her recovery from the tragic shooting in January. "Gabby is looking forward to some time away from the rehab center & the chance to see Captain Mark Kelly launch again!" Giffords' staff posted on her Facebook page. Some 40,000 onlookers are expected at the Kennedy Space Center Friday, as well as up to 750,000 people cramming onto nearby roadways to watch the launch, the AP reports.

(Sources: AP, BBC News)

NAPPING NEURONS 

If you're low on sleep, certain parts of your brain might be sneaking quick naps without asking your permission, according to a new study in the journal Nature. This "microsleep" could help explain why sleep-deprived people often seem to be a few cards short of a deck, the study's authors suggest. "After a long period in an awake state, cortical neurons can go briefly 'offline,'" the researchers write. "Although both EEG and behavior indicate wakefulness, local populations of neurons in the cortex may be falling asleep, with negative consequences for performance."

The researchers wired rats' brains to an EEG machine, forced them to stay awake longer than usual, and then studied the readouts to look for patterns in their brains' electrical activity. Scattered neurons throughout the rats' brains slowly alternated between bouts of activity and inactivity, a pattern that's associated with deep sleep, not wakefulness, Wired reports. But while these oscillations are normally more synchronized during true sleep, the "awake" rats' patterns were brief and disjointed. And when the rats were challenged in a task that involved reaching for sugar pellets, their performance dropped in proportion to the "offline" status of their neurons, much in the same way that sleep-deprived people often struggle to perform normal functions. "We know that when we are sleepy, we make mistakes, our attention wanders and our vigilance goes down," says study author Chiara Cirelli. "We have seen with EEGs that even while we are awake, we can experience shorts periods of 'microsleep.'"

This decline in performance is likely responsible for many traffic accidents caused by a person falling asleep at the wheel, the researchers note, and can take place even when a surprisingly small number of neurons go offline. "This activity happened in few cells," Cirelli adds. "For instance, out of 20 neurons we monitored in one experiment, 18 stayed awake. From the other two, there were signs of sleep — brief periods of activity alternating with periods of silence."

(Sources: Wired, ScienceDaily)

ARMADILLO DANGER 

Armadillos are seemingly harmless animals, only occasionally becoming a problem for people when they wander onto highways and get hit by cars. But these leathery placental mammals may pose another, more sinister threat, according to a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine: leprosy.

"There is a very strong association between the geographic location of the presence of this particular strain of M. leprae [a strain of the bacteria that cause leprosy] and the presence of armadillos in the Southern U.S.," lead author Stewart Cole tells TIME. "Our research provides clear DNA evidence that the unique strain found in armadillos is the same as the one in certain humans." Armadillos are one of the few animals known to carry the leprosy-causing bacteria, aside from humans, and the disease is extremely rare. Only about 150 cases are documented in the U.S. each year, and most Americans who contract leprosy have spent time overseas in places where the bacteria are endemic, TIME points out, such as parts of Brazil, the Congo and India. 

Still, up to one-third of U.S. leprosy cases appear to be contracted domestically, even in people who haven't come into contact with other leprosy patients. These cases have been most common in armadillo-heavy states like Texas and Louisiana, and while the animals have drawn suspicion, until now there was no proof they were to blame. After discovering a new strain of the leprosy bacteria and sequencing their DNA, however, the researchers were able to prove the connection. Eight of 22 human patients they studied remembered having contact with armadillos, including one who frequently hunted and cooked the animals.

(Sources: TIME, Reuters)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Newsweek reports on "global cooling," Cape Wind project hits hurdles, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (damage from a recent tornado in St. Louis, Mo.): ZUMA Press

Photo (space shuttle Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center): NASA

Photo (people napping in Haiti): Win McNamee/Getty Images

Photo (armadillo): City of Houston, Texas Health and Human Services

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