Deadly tornadoes roared through Alabama on Thursday, toppling trees, demolishing homes, and knocking out power to thousands, part of a broad swath of violent weather sweeping across the Deep South. At least five fatalities and an unknown number of injuries were reported.
Calhoun County officials told ABC News at least five people died as a twister that cut a diagonal path across the county. The dead include three people from one family and two other individuals in the Ohatche and Wellington areas.
Sheriff Matthew Wade said, “Our hearts, our thoughts and our prayers go to the families, and we are going to do our best to let them know we love them.”
Firefighters said a family was able to safely escape their toppled home in the Eagle Point subdivision, near Birmingham. In the nearby city of Pelham, also in Shelby County, authorities posted video and photos showing large trees blocking roads and damaged utility poles leaning menacingly over streets littered with debris from badly damaged homes. More than 20,000 customers were without power in Alabama.
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“We can confirm local residential structures have been completely destroyed,” Shelby County, Alabama, Sheriff John Samaniego told The Associated Press in an email.
Search and rescue efforts were complicated as strong weather continued to rake across the region.
“We have been told to be prepared for another round of storms,” said Maj. Clay Hammac of the Shelby County sheriff’s department.
In Centreville, south of Tuscaloosa, Cindy Smitherman and her family and neighbors huddled in their underground storm shelter as a twister came very close to their home. A tree fell on the shelter door, trapping the eight inside for about 20 minutes until someone came with a chain saw to help free them.
The twister downed trees, overturned cars and destroyed a workshop on the property. “I’m just glad we’re alive,” she said. “Praise the Lord.”
Centreville Mayor Mike Oakley told ABC 33/40 News that a local airport was hit. “We have airplanes torn apart like toys. We’ve got homes along here that are totally destroyed, trees down, power lines down. It’s pretty devastating.”
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued an emergency declaration for 46 counties as the severe weather approached, and officials opened shelters in and around Birmingham.
Forecasters warned of dangerous thunderstorms, flash floods, and possible twisters from eastern Mississippi into western Georgia, and northward into Tennessee and Kentucky. Flash flood warnings and watches extended to the western Carolinas.
The “supercell” of storms that spawned multiple twisters then moved into Georgia. A large and dangerous tornado moved through Newnan and surrounding communities in the Atlanta metro area in the overnight hours.
Mississippi also had a storm-related death on Wednesday. Ester Jarrell, 62, died when a large tree toppled over onto her mobile home after heavy rain soaked the ground, a Wilkinson County official told The Associated Press.