Survivors salvage belongings after tornado-spawning storm


(NewsNation) — Stunned residents tried to salvage belongings, and rescue crews pulled survivors from beneath collapsed houses Friday in the aftermath of a tornado-spawning storm system that killed at least nine people as it barreled across parts of Georgia and Alabama.

The widespread destruction came into view a day after violent storms flipped mobile homes into the air, sent uprooted trees crashing through buildings, snapped trees and utility poles and derailed a freight train.

Those who emerged with their lives gave thanks as they searched the wreckage to find anything worth saving.

“God was sure with us,” Tracey Wilhelm said as she looked over the shattered remnants of her mobile home in Alabama’s Autauga County.

She was at work Thursday when a tornado lifted her mobile home off its foundation and dumped it several feet away in a heap of rubble. Her husband and their five dogs scrambled into a shed that stayed intact, she said. Rescue workers later found them inside unharmed.

A search crew also found five people unharmed but trapped in a storm shelter after a wall from the adjacent house fell onto it, Autauga County Coroner Buster Barber said. Someone inside had a phone and kept calling for help.

The National Weather Service, which was working to confirm the twisters, said suspected tornado damage was reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and 14 in Georgia. Temperatures were forecast to plunge below freezing overnight in hard-hit areas of both states, where more than 30,000 homes and businesses remained without power at sundown.

The twister blamed for killing at least seven people in rural Autauga County left damage consistent with an EF3 tornado, which is just two steps below the most powerful category of twister. The tornado had winds of at least 136 mph, the weather service said.

Downtown Selma, about 40 miles to the southwest, also sustained severe damage before the worst of the weather moved across Georgia south of Atlanta.

James Carter’s Selma home was damaged when the tornado tore through the city.

Cars carefully navigate downed trees and power lines on Chestnut Blvd. in Selma, Alab., Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, after a tornado passed through the area the day before. Rescuers raced Friday to find survivors in the aftermath of a tornado-spawning storm system that barreled across parts of Georgia and Alabama. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

“I was at my house and I started hearing a little sound like a train. The closer it got, the louder it got. By the time it got over the house, the whole house was just shaking. My mom, she was laying in the bed, and I tried to put my body on top of her to protect her,” Carter said.

Seven deaths were recorded in Autauga County, Alabama, 41 miles northeast of Selma, where an estimated 40 homes were damaged or destroyed by a tornado that cut a 20-mile path across two rural communities, said Ernie Baggett, the county’s emergency management director. At least 12 were taken to hospitals, Baggett said, including several mobile homes that were launched into the air.

“They weren’t just blown over,” he said. “They were blown a distance.”

A tornado that hit Selma cut a wide path through the downtown area. Brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were tossed onto their sides and power lines were left dangling, Selma is about 50 miles west of Montgomery, the Alabama capital, and was a flashpoint of the civil rights movement.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey visited the city and pledged to ask President Joe Biden to expedite a major disaster declaration to get aid flowing. Officials said federal assistance will be critical for communities such as Selma, where nearly 30% of the city’s 18,000 residents live in poverty.

“It was far worse than anything I had envisioned or seen on television. Roofs are just gone and trees look like toothpicks,” Ivey said while touring the damage in Selma.

In Selma, the city council met on a sidewalk using lights from cellphones and declared a state of emergency.

The tornado that hit Selma cut a wide path through the downtown area. Brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were tossed onto their sides and power lines were left dangling. Several people had serious injuries, Selma Mayor James Perkins said, but no deaths were reported.

“We’re some strong resilient folks here and we’re going to pull this thing back together, but we’re going to need some help,” Perkins said.

One tornado cut a 20-mile path across two rural Alabama communities Thursday before the worst of the weather moved across Georgia on a track south of Atlanta.

Luther Owensby looks out from the front porch of his storm-damaged home Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, in Jackson, Ga. Powerful storms spawned tornadoes across Georgia Thursday night. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Calling Thursday a “tragic night,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the state had two fatalities: one state employee responding to storm damage, and a five-year-old who was killed by a tree falling on a vehicle.

“We got a lot of state workers out there in dangerous situations, a lot of our private utility partners, and others that are trying to restore power,” Kemp said. “It’s a very dangerous environment, certainly last night, and still is today. We literally have teams responding all over the state where there is damage.”

Officials in Georgia were not yet able to estimate storm damage as of Friday afternoon.

Three factors — a natural La Nina weather cycle, warming of the Gulf of Mexico likely related to climate change and a decades-long eastward shift of tornado activity — combined to make Thursday’s unusual tornado outbreak, said Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University who studies tornado trends.

This story is developing. Refresh for updates.

© 1998 - 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. | All Rights Reserved.