SELMA, Ala. – A massive storm system that produced strong winds and spawned tornadoes cut a path across the southern United States, killing at least seven people in Georgia and Alabama, where the twister damaged buildings and tossed cars on the streets of historic downtown Selma.
Authorities said a clearer picture of the extent of the damage and the search for more victims would be available Friday, when conditions are expected to clear. Tens of thousands of customers were without power in two states after the storm began to recede Thursday night.
In Selma, a city steeped in civil rights history, the city council used cell phone lights as they held a sidewalk rally to declare a state of emergency.
Six deaths were reported in Autauga County, Alabama, 41 miles (66 kilometers) northeast of Selma, where an estimated 40 homes were damaged or destroyed by the tornado that cut a 20-mile (32-kilometer) path through two rural communities,” said Ernie Baggett, the county’s emergency management director.
At least 12 people were seriously injured to be taken to hospital by rescuers, Baggett told The Associated Press. He said crews were focused Thursday night sawing down fallen trees in search of people who might need help.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen here in this county,” Baggett said of the damage.
In Georgia, a passenger was killed when a tree fell on a car in Jackson, Buttes County Coroner Lacey Prue said. In the same county southeast of Atlanta, the storm appears to have derailed a freight train, officials said.
Officials in Griffin, south of Atlanta, told local news outlets that several people were trapped in an apartment complex after trees fell on it. A Hobby Lobby store in the city partially lost its roof, while elsewhere in the city, firefighters freed a man who was trapped for hours under a tree that fell on his home. The city imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday.
On Thursday, the National Weather Service issued 33 separate tornado reports across the country, and Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina were under temporary tornado warnings. Tornado reports have yet to be confirmed, and some may later be classified as wind damage after an assessment is made in the coming days.
The tornado that hit Selma cut a wide path through downtown, where brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were on their sides and power lines were down. Columns of thick black smoke rose above the city from the fire. It is not yet known whether the storm was the cause of the fire.
Selma Mayor James Perkins said there were no fatalities, but several people were seriously injured. First responders continued to assess the damage, and officials hoped to get an aerial view of the city Friday morning.
“We have a lot of downed power lines,” he said. “The streets are very dangerous.”
Mattie Moore was among the Selma residents who picked up boxed meals offered by a downtown charity.
“Thank God we are here. It’s like something you see on TV,” Moore said of all the destruction.
A city of about 18,000 people, Selma is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Montgomery, Alabama’s capital. It was a flashpoint for the civil rights movement, where Alabama state troopers brutally attacked black suffragists as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.
Malesha McVeigh captured video of a giant twister that blackened as it smashed into home after home.
“He would get into the house and black smoke would go up,” she said. “It was very terrifying.”
About 40,000 customers were without power in Alabama Thursday night, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages across the country. In Georgia, about 86,000 customers were without power after a storm system made its way through a number of counties south of Atlanta.
School systems in at least six Georgia counties canceled classes Friday. A total of 90,000 students are enrolled in these systems.
In Kentucky, the National Weather Service in Louisville confirmed an EF-1 tornado touched down in Mercer County and said crews were surveying several other counties.
Three factors — the natural cycle of La Niña weather, warming in the Gulf of Mexico likely linked to climate change and decades of tornadoes shifting from west to east — combined to make Thursday’s tornado outbreak unusual and devastating, Victor Gensini said. , a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University who studies tornado trends.
La Nina, the cooling of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather around the world, was responsible for creating the wavy jet that brought the cold front, Gensini said. But that’s not enough to spark a tornado. What is needed is moisture.
This time of year is usually pretty dry in the Southeast, but the dew point was twice as high as normal, likely due to unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, likely influenced by climate change. That moisture hit a cold front and everything was in place, Gensini said.
Associated Press writer Alina Hartunian in Phoenix, Arizona; Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Seth Borenstein in Denver; Rebecca Reynolds in Louisville, Kentucky; Christopher Weber in Los Angeles; and photographer Butch Diehl of Selma, Alabama contributed to this report.
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