At Least Five People Dead as Tornado Outbreak Rips Across the Deep South

Cars were flipped and damaged on on Montgomery Highway in Centerville, Ala., after day of extended severe weather, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Pelham, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Tornadoes and severe storms tore through the Deep South, killing at least five people as strong winds splintered trees, wrecked homes and downed power lines.

Multiple twisters sprang from a “super cell” of storms that rolled over western Georgia early Friday after spawning as many as eight tornadoes in Alabama on Thursday, said John De Block, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

One large, dangerous tornado moved through Newnan, destroying homes there and damaging others in surrounding communities west of Atlanta, meteorologists said.

A day earlier, one tornado formed in southwest Alabama and carved up the ground for more than an hour Thursday, traveling roughly 100 miles (160 kilometers) and causing heavy damage in the city of Centreville, south of Tuscaloosa.

De Block said it dissipated in Shelby County, where another twister had already heavily damaged homes and businesses and devastated the landscape. The county is home to suburban Birmingham cities such as Pelham and Helena and the unincorporated subdivision of Eagle Point — all suffering heavy damage.

Still another of the eight suspected tornadoes that hit the state killed five people in Calhoun County.

“Five people lost their lives and for those families, it will never be the same,” Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade said at briefing Thursday evening. Coroner Pat Brown identified them Friday to Al.com as Joe Wayne Harris, 74, Barbara Harris, 69, Ebonique Harris, 28; Emily Myra Wilborn, 72, and James William Geno, 72.

One of the victims in the hard-hit town of Ohatchee in eastern Alabama, a small community of about 1,170 people, was Dwight Jennings’s neighbor. Geno went by J.W. and had been a rodeo bull rider in his youth. He could make anything out of wood, and loved to catfish, Jennings said. They had planned to go fishing this weekend; instead he spent hours searching for Geno’s dog before the animal was found alive.

Reports of tornado damage in the Newnan area began coming in shortly after midnight. One-hundred-year-old trees were toppled and power lines downed.

Stephen Brown, fire chief in the city of Newnan said during a televised morning news conference that rescue teams were methodically checking every structure and assessing the destruction. They’ve found “heavy, heavy damage” in parts of the city’s historic district, he said.

“It’ll never look the same,” Brown said. But he also complimented the resiliency of the community. “They’re out. They’re working. Family members are coming out there and they’re already on their own doing the cleanup.”

The bad weather stretched across the southern U.S., raising concerns of thunderstorms and flooding in parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and the Carolinas. Emergency responders hospitalized one person in Sumner County, Tennessee, and the Nashville Fire Department posted photos on Twitter showing large trees down, damaged homes and streets blocked by debris.

More than 150,000 people were without power Friday in Ohio and Pennsylvania after 50 mph (80 kph) wind gusts ripped across the region. Forecasters reported peak gusts of 63 mph (100 kph) in Marysville, Ohio. Some 23,000 customers remained without electricity in Alabama, according to poweroutage.us.

Some school districts from Alabama to Ohio canceled or delayed class Friday due to damage and power outages.

In the Alabama city of Pelham, James Dunaway said he initially ignored the tornado warning on his phone, but then he heard a twister approaching. He had just enough time to leave the upstairs bedroom where he had been watching television for an interior hallway before the roof and sides of his house blew off. His bedroom was left fully exposed.

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

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 Centreville, Cindy Smitherman and her family and neighbors — eight people in all — huddled in their underground storm pit as a twister passed over their home.

A tree fell on the shelter door, trapping them inside until someone came with a chain saw to help free them, said Smitherman, 62. They emerged to see downed trees, overturned cars and a destroyed workshop on the property.

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

Centreville Mayor Mike Oakley told ABC 33/40 news that at the local airport, “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.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday extended condolences to the victims. She said they’re in close communication with state and local officials, and haven’t received any requests for federal assistance yet.

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.

“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.

SOURCE: The Associated Press, Butch Dill and Anila Yoganathan