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Six-year-old girl among several people killed as strong winds and tornadoes hammer South

Six-year-old girl among several people killed as strong winds and tornadoes hammer South
Larry Fondren sorts through the rubble of his mobile home destroyed by a tornado in Alabama
Larry Fondren sorts through the rubble of his mobile home, which was destroyed when a tree fell on it as a tornado heavily damaged homes and destroyed mobile homes near Akron in Hale County, Alabama, on Jan. 12, 2023.  Gary Cosby Jr. / USA Today Network via Reuters

A massive storm system whipping up severe winds and spawning tornadoes cut a path across the South Thursday, killing at least seven people in Georgia and Alabama, where a twister damaged buildings and tossed cars in the streets of historic downtown Selma.

A six-year-old 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 Friday, when conditions were expected to clear. After the storm began easing Thursday night, tens of thousands of customers were without power across the two states.  

In Jackson, Georgia, a child was killed when a tree fell on a car being driven by the child’s mother, the Butts County Sheriff’s Office told CBS News. CBS Atlanta affiliate WANF-TV reports that the child was a girl. The station says the mother was first listed in critical condition but has since been released, and the sheriff’s office confirmed to CBS News that the mother was OK. 

Severe Weather Tornado
A damaged vehicle rests on its side in front of a home on Jan. 12, 2023, in Selma, Ala. A large tornado damaged homes and uprooted trees in the state as a powerful storm system pushed through the South. Butch Dill / AP

In the same county, southeast of Atlanta, the storm appeared to have knocked a freight train off its tracks, officials said.

In Selma, a city etched in the history of the civil rights movement, the city council used lights from cellphones as they held a meeting on the sidewalk to declare a state of emergency.

At least six deaths were recorded in Autauga County, Alabama, 41 miles northeast of Selma, Ernie Baggett, the county’s emergency management director, told CBS News, adding that an estimated 40 homes were damaged or destroyed by a tornado. He said it cut a 20-mile path across the rural communities of Old Kingston and Marbury.

At least 12 people were injured severely enough to be taken to hospitals by emergency responders, Baggett told The Associated Press. He said crews were focused Thursday night on cutting through downed trees to look for people who may need help.

“This is the worst that I’ve seen here in this county,” Baggett said of the damage.

The American flag lies in the shrubs in front of the storm damaged Selma Country Club
The American flag lies in the shrubs in front of the storm-damaged Selma Country Club after a tornado ripped through Selma, Alabama, on Jan. 12, 2023.  Mickey Welsh / USA Today Network via Reuters

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.”

Officials in Griffin, south of Atlanta, told local news outlets that multiple people had been trapped inside an apartment complex after trees fell on it. A Hobby Lobby store in the city partially lost its roof while elsewhere in town, firefighters cut a man loose who’d been pinned for hours under a tree that fell 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 time. The tornado reports weren’t confirmed and some could be classified as wind damage after assessments are done in coming days.

The tornado that hit Selma cut a wide path through the downtown area, where brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were on their side and power lines were left dangling. Plumes of thick, black smoke rose over the city from a fire. It wasn’t 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 no fatalities had been reported but several people were seriously injured. First responders were continuing to assess the damage and officials hoped to get an aerial view of the city Friday morning.

Severe Weather Tornado
Fallen trees are seen in the aftermath of severe weather on Jan. 12, 2023, in Selma, Ala.  Butch Dill / AP

“We have a lot of downed power lines,” he said. “There is a lot of danger on the streets.”

Mattie Moore was among Selma residents who picked up boxed meals offered by a charity downtown.

“Thank God that 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 swept away home after home.

“It would hit a house, and black smoke would swirl up,” she said. “It was very terrifying.”

A city of about 18,000 people, Selma is about 50 miles west of Montgomery, the Alabama capital.

It was a flashpoint of the civil rights movement and where 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.

School systems in at least six Georgia counties canceled classes for Friday. Those systems have a total of 90,000 students.

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.

Three factors – a natural La Nina weather cycle, warming of the Gulf of Mexico likely related to climate change and a decades-long shift of tornadoes from the west to east – came together to make Thursday’s tornado outbreak unusual and damaging, said Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University who studies tornado trends.

The La Nina, a cooling of parts of the Pacific that changes weather worldwide, was a factor in making a wavy jet stream that brought a cold front through, Gensini said. But that’s not enough for a tornado outbreak. What’s needed is moisture.

Normally, the air in the Southeast is fairly dry this time of year but the dew point was twice what it is normally, likely because of unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, which is probably influenced by climate change. That moisture hit the cold front and everything was in place, Gensini said.

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