At least five people died on Thursday as multiple tornadoes touched down in Alabama, the second line of severe storms to slam the state in two weeks.
The tornadoes moved across the state, the National Weather Service said, and there were reports of homes destroyed, trees knocked over, and people injured and trapped. More than 35,000 customers were without power in Alabama,according to poweroutage.us.
And the outbreak wasn’t done yet in the region: the NWS forecast numerous intense and long-track tornadoes, widespread damaging winds (some hurricane-force) and scattered large hail into the evening.
Strong thunderstorms were forecast from western Kentucky into southern Indiana. Damaging winds are the primary threat but forecasters said isolated tornadoes will also be possible Thursday night.
Long-track tornadoes are twisters that carve up the ground for several miles, often causing devastating damage.
“Tornadoes at night can be particularly dangerous because they are usually fast-moving and difficult to see,” the NWS said. “The most persistent/intense supercells will be capable of producing strong to violent tornadoes, along with very large hail and substantial damaging winds.”
In Alabama, Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown confirmed five people, all believed to be adults, died in three residential structures Thursday.
Brown said three family members were killed inside a wood-frame home in Ohatchee, a small East Alabama town, after an apparent tornado touched down around 3 p.m. Another man was killed in a mobile home in Ohatchee. The fifth victim, a woman, died in a mobile home in Wellington, Alabama.
A tornado was later confirmed close to the town, the National Weather Service reported.
Severe storms began popping up in central Alabama in mid-afternoon and continued to come in waves through the early evening. There was a long list of roads with damage reported — a church was among the structures hit.
Calhoun County emergency managers encouraged people to stay out of the area and let first responders work, and to stay weather aware because more storms were expected through the evening.
Search and rescue efforts were complicated as strong weather continued to rake across the region.
“We have been told to be prepared for another round of storms,” said Maj. Clay Hammac of the Shelby County sheriff’s department.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued an emergency declaration for 46 counties as the severe weather approached, and officials opened shelters in and around Birmingham. She also issued a statement via Twitter late Thursday following reports of residents killed in the storms.
“Significant and dangerous weather continues to impact portions of Alabama, and I urge all folks in the path of these tornadoes and storm systems to remain on high alert,” Ivey said in a prepared statement. “Tragically, we are receiving reports of loss of life. I offer my sincerest prayers to all impacted. Unfortunately, the day is not over yet. Y’all, please stay safe and vigilant!”
Severe weather also hit parts of Mississippi on Thursday, a day after authorities reported a weather-related death in the southwestern part of the state. Ester Jarrell, 62, died when a large tree toppled over onto her mobile home after heavy rain soaked the ground Wednesday night, a Wilkinson County official told The Associated Press.
About 50 million people were in the path of severe weather, the Storm Prediction Center said. Portions of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were most at risk, the National Weather Service said.
The weather service cautioned those in the path of the storm that, “if a tornado warning is issued for your area, move to a place of safety, ideally in a basement or interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building.”
For the second time this month, the Storm Prediction Center issued a high risk of severe weather in the South. The last time the center issued two high risks for severe weather in the month of March was 30 years ago, in 1991, AccuWeather said.
James Spann, ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist in Birmingham, Alabama said the storms have caused “catastrophic damage.”
“Nothing is good about this,” said Spann as he tracked another “violent” tornado through Bibb County at 5:15 p.m. “Nothing.”
Some of the major metropolitan areas in the path of Thursday’s storms include Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee; and Birmingham and Huntsville in Alabama.
In Tennessee, a thunderstorm moving up to 80 mph brought hail, strong winds and tree damage as it tore through the state.
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Some schools in the South closed or switched to virtual learning Thursday as severe weather threatened. COVID-19 vaccine distribution sites were also closed.
The storms were forecast to hit primarily during the afternoon and early evening, and some could potentially occur after dark.
Ashlyn Jackson, a meteorologist at the weather service’s Jackson office, encouraged residents there to have more than one warning system in place in case severe weather strikes.
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“Especially at night, sometimes things like tornado sirens won’t be enough to wake you up, so I would tell people to have other methods to stay weather-aware,” she said.
In addition to the severe weather, a flash flood watch Thursday covered northern parts of Alabama and Georgia and portions of Tennessee and western North Carolina.
Up to 4 inches of rain – with higher amounts possible – is expected in northern Alabama, according to the weather service in Huntsville.
Contributing: Keisha Rowe, Mississippi Clarion Ledger; The Montgomery Advertiser; The Tuscaloosa News; The Associated Press