A giant, swirling storm system that swept across the south killed at least six people Thursday in central Alabama and a seventh person in Georgia, authorities said, and spawned a tornado that tore through the walls of homes , toppled roofs and uprooted trees in Selma.
David Hill, sheriff of Autauga County, Alabama, confirmed to CBS News that there were at least six deaths in the county.
Ernie Baggett, director of the Autauga County, Alabama Emergency Management Agency, told CBS News that about 40 homes were damaged or destroyed. The tornado’s destruction traversed a path of about 20 miles through the communities of Old Kingston and Marbury, Baggett said.
Search and rescue operations were suspended around 8 p.m. local time, Baggett said, but will resume on Friday.
Autauga County, Alabama is 41 miles northeast of Selma, which was also hard hit by the tornado.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has declared a state of emergency for six counties: Autauga, Chambers, Coosa, Dallas, Elmore and Tallapoosa, which contains Selma.
“I am saddened to learn that six Alabamians were lost in the storms that ravaged our state,” Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said. tweeted Thursday evening. “My prayers are with their loved ones and their communities.”
In Georgia, a passenger died when a tree fell on a vehicle in Jackson during the storm, Butts County Coroner Lacey Prue said. In the same county southeast of Atlanta, the storm appears to have derailed a freight train, officials said.
Nationwide, there were 33 separate tornado reports Thursday from the National Weather Service Thursday night, with a handful of tornado warnings still in effect in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. However, the reports have yet to be confirmed and some of them may later be classified as wind damage after assessments made in the coming days.
In Selma, brick buildings collapsed, cars lay flat and sign posts littered the town center. Plumes of thick, black smoke rose above the city from a burning fire. It was not immediately known whether the storm had caused the fire.
A few blocks from the city’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, an enduring symbol of the suffrage movement, buildings were collapsed by the storm and trees blocked roads.
Selma Mayor James Perkins said no fatalities have been reported at this time, but first responders are continuing to assess the damage.
“People were injured, but no fatalities,” Perkins said. “We have a lot of downed power lines. There is a lot of danger in the streets.”
A municipal curfew is in place, the mayor added.
The “large and extremely dangerous tornado” caused damage as it passed through the historic city, the National Weather Service said. There were confirmed reports of damage to trees and structures in Selma and reports of damage in other counties, the agency said.
Selma was a flashpoint of the civil rights movement. Alabama State Troopers viciously attacked black people advocating for the vote as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Among those beaten by law enforcement officers was John Lewis, whose skull was fractured. He went on to a long and distinguished career as a member of the United States Congress.
Selma Mayor James Perkins told the WSFA that at least one person is believed to have been trapped in a building on Broad Street and another person may be missing. There are several downed power lines and this is considered an emergency.
The outer skin of a two-story building was shredded by the storm, photos from the Selma Times-Journal showed. Huge chunks of insulation and metal were wrapped around a tree trunk, and fallen tree branches obscured a sign that read “WELCOME TO HISTORIC SELMA.”
Malesha McVay drove alongside the tornado with her family. She said he drove less than a mile from her house before suddenly turning.
“We stopped and prayed. We followed him and prayed,” she said. “It was a 100% God thing that he shot right before he hit my house.”
She took video of the giant tornado, which turned black as it swept away house after house.
“It would hit a house and black smoke would swirl around,” she said. “It was very terrifying.”
The Weather Service had issued a tornado emergency for several counties just north of the capital city of Montgomery as the same storm system moved east. “This is a life-threatening situation. Take cover immediately,” the weather service said of the reported tornado.
Multiple tornado warnings were issued Thursday in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee as the storm system moved through the region.
Officials in Griffin, Georgia, south of Atlanta, told local media that several people were trapped inside an apartment complex after trees fell. Firefighters also released a Griffin man who had been trapped for hours under a fallen tree on his home. A high school was damaged and students were held up at four middle schools for parents to pick up after authorities determined it was unsafe to operate buses. The town of Griffin imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday.
On Friday, school systems in at least six Georgia counties on the southern outskirts of metro Atlanta canceled classes. These systems enroll a total of 90,000 students. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp also declared a state of emergency.
More than 49,000 Georgian customers were without power late Thursday night, according to PowerOutage.us.
Damage was reported west of downtown Atlanta in Douglas and Cobb counties, with the Cobb County government releasing a damage report showing a collapsed cinder block wall at a warehouse in suburban Atlanta. ‘Austell.
In Kentucky, the National Weather Service in Louisville confirmed an EF-1 tornado hit Mercer County and said crews were monitoring damage in a handful of other counties. There have been reports of downed trees, power outages and other scattered damage from storms that passed through the state.