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US tornado outbreak kills at least five in Alabama and Georgia

Published: Updated:

Blaring tornado sirens and howling winds roared across parts of western Georgia early Friday as severe storms pounded southern states, including in Alabama where at least five people died in twisters that wrecked homes, splintered trees and crumpled businesses.

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Meteorologists said a large, dangerous tornado swept through metro Atlanta’s Coweta County around midnight Friday, sparking a tornado emergency for the city of Newnan and surrounding communities. There were several reports downed trees and power lines.

Newnan police asked residents to “get off the roads” in a Facebook post, explaining that emergency officials were surveying the area. Newnan Utilities said the storm knocked out its phone and internet services but that they were “fully aware of downed lines, gas leaks and many impassable roads.”

Newnan Mayor Keith Brady said no fatalities were immediately reported.

The strong storm followed a series of tornadoes that ripped through Alabama on Thursday, including one that authorities said traveled roughly 100 miles (160 kilometers) across the state.

A destroyed house is seen in Chilton County, Alabama, U.S., March 17, 2021 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Video taken March 17, 2017. Video taken with a drone. (Brad Vance/via Reuters)
A destroyed house is seen in Chilton County, Alabama, U.S., March 17, 2021 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Video taken March 17, 2017. Video taken with a drone. (Brad Vance/via Reuters)

In east Alabama, Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade said five people died in a twister that cut a diagonal path across the county, striking mostly rural areas — something that likely kept the death toll from being higher.

“Our hearts, our thoughts and our prayers go to the families, and we are going to do our best to let them know we love them,” Wade said at an evening briefing.

Multiple twisters sprang from a “super cell” of storms that later moved into Georgia, said John De Block, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

Several school districts were closed or delayed Friday due to the damage.

Vast areas of Shelby County near Birmingham — the state’s biggest city — were badly damaged.

In the city of Pelham, James Dunaway said he initially ignored the tornado warning when it came over his phone. But then he heard the twister approaching, left the upstairs bedroom where he had been watching television and entered a hallway — just before the storm blew off the roof and sides of his house. His bedroom was left fully exposed.

“I’m very lucky to be alive,” Dunaway, 75, told Al.com.

 Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego speaks at a press conference describing the tornado damage to Shelby County, near Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, March 25, 2021. (AP)
Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego speaks at a press conference describing the tornado damage to Shelby County, near Birmingham, Ala., Thursday, March 25, 2021. (AP)

Firefighters outside a flattened home in the Eagle Point subdivision, also in Shelby County, said the family that lived there made it out alive. Nearby homes were roofless or missing their second stories.

Farther west in the city of Centreville, south of Tuscaloosa, Cindy Smitherman and her family and neighbors huddled in their underground storm pit as a twister passed over their home.

A tree fell on the shelter door, trapping the eight inside for about 20 minutes until someone came with a chain saw to help free them, said Smitherman, 62. The twister downed trees, overturned cars and destroyed a workshop on the property.

“I’m just glad we’re alive,” she said. “Praise the Lord.”

Centreville Mayor Mike Oakley told ABC 33/40 news that a local airport was hit. “We have airplanes torn apart like toys. We’ve got homes along here that are totally destroyed, trees down, power lines down. It’s pretty devastating.”

As many as eight tornadoes might have hit Alabama on Thursday, De Block said. He said investigation teams will review eight suspected tornado tracks, and the final twister number will depend on if any of those tracks can be connected.

 Piles of debris remain after a tornado touched down killing several people and damaging multiple homes, Thursday, March 25, 2021 in Ohatchee, Ala. (AP)
Piles of debris remain after a tornado touched down killing several people and damaging multiple homes, Thursday, March 25, 2021 in Ohatchee, Ala. (AP)

First lady Jill Biden postponed a trip to Birmingham and Jasper, Alabama, that she had planned for Friday because of the severe weather, her office said in a news release.

“Thinking of everyone in Alabama and all of those impacted by the severe weather across the South tonight. My prayers are with the grieving families. Please stay safe,” Biden tweeted late Thursday.

Earlier, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued an emergency declaration for 46 counties, and officials opened shelters in and around Birmingham.

Other parts of the southern US were also affected, with dangerous thunderstorms and flooding concerns for parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas.

In addition to deaths in Alabama, Mississippi had a storm-related death on Wednesday. Ester Jarrell, 62, died in that state’s Wilkinson County when a large tree toppled over onto her mobile home after heavy rain soaked the ground, an official told AP.

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