A massive storm system fanning high winds and tornadoes spawned a path across the south on Thursday, killing at least seven people in Georgia and Alabama, where a tornado damaged buildings and threw cars onto downtown streets history of Selma.
A six-year-old child was among the dead, authorities said.
Authorities said a clearer picture of the extent of the damage and a search for additional victims would come on Friday, when conditions are expected to clear up. After the storm began to subside Thursday evening, tens of thousands of customers were without power in both states.
In Jackson, Georgia, a child was killed when a tree fell on a car driven by his mother, the Butts County Sheriff’s Office told CBS News. CBS Atlanta affiliate WANF-TV reports the child was a girl. The station says the mother was initially listed in critical condition but has since been released, and the sheriff’s office has confirmed to CBS News that the mother is fine.
In the same county, southeast of Atlanta, the storm appears to have derailed a freight train, officials said.
In Selma, a town steeped in the history of the civil rights movement, the city council used cellphone lights during a sidewalk meeting to declare a state of emergency.
At least six deaths have been recorded in Autauga County, Alabama, 41 miles northeast of Selma, county emergency management director Ernie Baggett told CBS News, adding that about 40 houses had been damaged or destroyed by a tornado. He said it cut a 20-mile path through the rural communities of Old Kingston and Marbury.
At least 12 people were injured enough to be taken to hospital by emergency responders, Baggett told The Associated Press. He said crews were concentrating Thursday night on cutting down downed trees to search for people who might need help.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen here in this county,” Baggett said of the damage.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey 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.”
Officials in Griffin, south of Atlanta, told local news outlets that several people were trapped inside an apartment complex after trees fell. A Hobby Lobby store in the city partially lost its roof while elsewhere in the city firefighters freed a man trapped for hours under a fallen tree on his house. The city imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday.
Nationwide, there were 35 separate tornado reports from the National Weather Service on Thursday, and Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina all saw tornado warnings for a while. Tornado reports have not been confirmed and some may be classified as wind damage after assessments are completed in the coming days.
The tornado that struck Selma carved a wide path through downtown, where brick buildings crumbled, oak trees were uprooted, cars were sidelined and power lines were left dangling. Plumes of thick, black smoke rose over the city from a fire. It was not immediately known if 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 were reported but several people were seriously injured. First responders were continuing to assess the damage and officials were hoping to get an aerial view of the city by Friday morning.
“We have a lot of downed power lines,” he said. “There is a lot of danger in the streets.
Mattie Moore was among Selma residents who picked up boxed meals donated by a downtown charity.
“Thank God we’re here. It’s like something you see on TV,” Moore said of all the destruction.
Malesha McVay took video of the giant twister, which would turn black as it carried house after house.
“It would hit a house and black smoke would swirl around,” she said. “It was very terrifying.”
A town of about 18,000 people, Selma is about 80 km west of Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.
It was a flashpoint of the civil rights movement and where Alabama state troopers violently attacked black people advocating for the vote as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Among those beaten by law enforcement was John Lewis, whose skull was fractured. He went on to a long and distinguished career as a member of the United States Congress.
School systems in at least six Georgia counties canceled classes on Friday. These systems have a total of 90,000 students.
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.
Three factors – a natural La Nina climate cycle, the warming of the Gulf of Mexico likely linked toand a decades-long shift of tornadoes from west to east — came together to make Thursday’s tornado outbreak unusual and damaging, said Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University who studies tornado patterns.
La Nina, a cooling of parts of the Pacific that alters weather around the world, was a factor in creating a wavy jet stream that caused a cold front, Gensini said. But that’s not enough for a tornado outbreak. What is needed is moisture.
Normally the air in the southeast is quite dry at this time of year, but the dew point was double what it normally is, likely due to unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, which is likely influenced by climate change. That moisture hit the cold front and everything was in place, Gensini said.