A massive storm system that packed high winds and spawned tornadoes sliced its way through the south Thursday, killing at least seven people in Georgia and Alabama, where the twister damaged buildings and tossed cars on the streets of historic downtown Selma.
According to authorities, a six-year-old child was among the dead.
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 Jackson, Georgia, a child was killed when a tree fell on a car driven by the child’s mother, the Buttes County Sheriff’s Office told CBS News. CBS Atlanta affiliate WANF-TV reports for the child to be a girl. The station reports that the mother was initially listed in critical condition but was later released, and the sheriff’s office confirmed to CBS News that the mother is OK.
In the same county, southeast of Atlanta, the storm appears to have derailed a freight train, officials said.
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.
At least six deaths were reported in Autauga County, Alabama, 41 miles northeast of Selma, Ernie Baggett, the county’s director of emergency management, told CBS News, adding that an estimated 40 homes were damaged or destroyed by the tornado. He said it shortened the 20-mile route through the rural communities of Old Kingston and Marbury.
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.
“This is the worst I’ve seen here in this county,” Baggett said of the damage.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency in six counties: Autauga, Chambers, Coosa, Dallas, Elmore and Tallapoosa, where Selma is located.
“I am saddened to learn that six Alabamians have lost their lives as a result of the storm that hit our state,” said Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. tweeted Thursday evening. “My prayers are with their loved ones and the community.”
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 firefighters freed a man who had been 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.
The National Weather Service reported 35 separate tornado reports across the country on Thursday, with tornado warnings in place for Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina. Tornado reports have not been confirmed, and some may 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.
A few blocks from the city’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, an enduring symbol of the suffrage movement, buildings were crumpled by the storm and trees blocked roadways.
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. “There’s a lot of danger on the streets.”
Mattie Moore was among the Selma residents who picked up boxed meals offered by a downtown charity.
“Thank God we’re here. It’s like something you see on TV,” Moore said of all the destruction.
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.”
A city of about 18,000 people, Selma is about 50 miles 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. Among those beaten by law enforcement officers was John Lewis, whose skull was crushed broken. He had a long and distinguished career as a US Congressman.
School systems in at least six Georgia counties canceled classes for Friday. These systems have a total of 90,000 students.
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 La Niña weather cycle, likely linked to the warming of the Gulf of Mexico climate change and a decade-long west-to-east tornado shift — combined to make Thursday’s tornado outbreak unusual and devastating, said Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor 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.
Air in the Southeast is usually fairly dry this time of year, but the dew point was twice as high as normal, likely due to unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, likely influenced by climate change. That moisture hit a cold front and everything was in place, Gensini said.