A giant, swirling storm system billowing 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 shredded the walls of homes, toppled roofs and uprooted trees in Selma.
David Hill, sheriff for Autauga County, Alabama, confirmed to CBS News that there were at least six fatalities in the county.
Ernie Baggett, emergency management agency director in Autauga County, Alabama, told CBS News that about 40 homes were damaged or destroyed. The tornado’s destruction traversed a path of about 20 miles in the communities of Old Kingston and Marbury, Baggett said.
Search and rescue operations were suspended at about 8 p.m. local time, Baggett said, but will resume Friday.
Autauga County, Alabama, is 41 miles northeast of Selma, which was also hard-hit by the tornado.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency for six counties: Autauga, Chambers, Coosa, Dallas, Elmore and Tallapoosa, which contains Selma.
“I am sad to have learned that six Alabamians were lost to the storms that ravaged across our state,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey tweeted Thursday night. “My prayers are with their loved ones and 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 appeared to have knocked a freight train off its tracks, officials said.
Nationwide, there were 33 separate tornado reports Thursday from the National Weather Service as of Thursday night, with a handful of tornado warnings still in effect in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. However, the reports were not yet confirmed and some of them could later be classified as wind damage after assessments are done in coming days.
In Selma, brick buildings collapsed, cars were on their side and traffic poles were strewn about in the downtown area. Plumes of thick, black smoke rose over the city from a fire burning. It was not immediately known whether the storm caused the blaze.
A few blocks past the city’s famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, an enduring symbol of the voting rights movement, buildings were crumpled by the storm and trees blocked roadways.
Selma Mayor James Perkins said that no fatalities have been reported at this time, but first responders are continuing to assess the damage.
“People have been injured, but no fatalities,” Perkins said. “We have a lot of downed power lines. There is a lot of danger on the streets.”
A city curfew is being put into place, the mayor added.
The “large and extremely dangerous tornado” caused damage as it moved through the historic city, the National Weather Service said. There were confirmed reports of tree and structural damage 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 voting rights 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 fractured. He went on to a long and distinguished career as a U.S. congressman.
Selma Mayor James Perkins told WSFA that least one person was believed trapped in a building on Broad Street and possibly one other person is missing. There are multiple downed powerlines, and it is considered an emergency situation.
The outer skin of a two-story building was shredded by the storm, photos from The Selma Times-Journal showed. Huge pieces of insulation and metal were wrapped around the trunk of a tree, and fallen tree branches obscured a sign that proclaims “WELCOME TO HISTORIC SELMA.”
Malesha McVay drove parallel to the tornado with her family. She said it got less than a mile from her home before suddenly turning.
“We stopped and we prayed. We followed it and prayed,” she said. “It was a 100% God thing that it turned right before it hit my house.”
She took video of the giant twister, which would turn black as it swept away home after home.
“It would hit a house and black smoke would swirl up,” 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 eastward. “This is a life-threatening situation. Take shelter immediately,” the weather service said of the reported tornado.
There were multiple tornado warnings issued Thursday in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee as the storm system moved through the region.
Officials in Griffin, Georgia, south of Atlanta, told local news outlets that multiple people had been trapped inside an apartment complex after trees fell on it. Firefighters also cut a Griffin man loose who had been pinned for hours under a tree that fell on his house. A high school was damaged, and students were held at four middle schools for parents to pick up after officials determined it was unsafe to run buses. The city of Griffin imposed a curfew from 10 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday.
School systems in at least six Georgia counties on the southern fringes of metro Atlanta canceled classes on Friday. Those systems enroll a total of 90,000 students. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also declared a state of emergency.
More than 49,000 Georgia customers were without electricity late Thursday night, according to PowerOutage.us.
Damage was reported west of downtown Atlanta in Douglas County and Cobb County, with Cobb County government posting a damage report showing a crumbled cinder block wall at a warehouse in suburban Austell.
In Kentucky, the National Weather Service in Louisville confirmed that an EF-1 tornado struck Mercer County and said crews were surveying damage in a handful of other counties. There were reports of downed trees, power outages and other scattered damage from storms that moved through the state.
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