At least five people have been killed and multiple injuries reported after a string of up to seven deadly tornadoes tore through Alabama, toppling trees, demolishing homes and knocking out power to thousands.
The confirmed deaths were in Calhoun County, in the eastern part of the state, where one of multiple twisters sprang from a “super cell” of storms that later moved into Georgia, said John De Block, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Birmingham.
Search and rescue efforts were complicated by strong weather that continued to hit the region. Radar “debris signatures” showed a tornado that formed in southwest Alabama traveled roughly 100 miles (161 km) and stayed on the ground for about an hour and 20 minutes, De Block said. He said on-sight investigations would determine the strength of the storms, but based on the debris signatures, “we’re pretty confident we will find at least seven tornadoes” passed through the state on Thursday.
The twisters ripped through towns from west to east. In the western city of Centreville, south of Tuscaloosa, Cindy Smitherman and her family and neighbors huddled in their underground storm pit as the twister passed over their home.
A tree fell on the shelter door, trapping the eight of them inside for about 20 minutes until someone came with a chain saw to remove the tree, said Smitherman, 62. The twister downed trees, overturned cars and destroyed a workshop on the property.
“I’m just glad we’re alive,” she said.
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,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 the state.
“We can confirm local residential structures have been completely destroyed,” the sheriff of Shelby county, John Samaniego, told the Associated Press.
Search and rescue efforts were complicated as strong weather continued to rake across the region.
The storm inflicted extensive damage, including to numerous homes and a civic center, police said. Utility lines had also been downed along several highways, police said, warning people to stay off the road and away from tornado-damaged areas.
Maj Clay Hammac, of the Shelby county sheriff’s department, said they “have been told to be prepared for another round of storms”. Up to 4in (10cm) of rain with higher amounts possible is expected in northern Alabama, according to the National Weather Service in Huntsville.
The destruction was part of a broad swath of violent weather sweeping across the deep south. Forecasters had 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.
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.
Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, issued an emergency declaration for 46 counties as the severe weather approached, and officials opened shelters in and around Birmingham. Ivey said “significant and dangerous weather continues to impact portions of Alabama”, according to a statement on Twitter.
“Tragically, we are receiving reports of loss of life. Unfortunately the day is not over yet.”