By KIM CHANDLER and JEFF MARTIN
SELMA, Ala. — A giant, swirling storm system billowing across the South killed at least six people Thursday in central Alabama, authorities said, and spawned a tornado that shredded the walls of homes, toppled roofs and uprooted trees in Selma.
Ernie Baggett, the emergency management director in Autauga County, Alabama, told The Associated Press he could confirm six fatalities were scattered across multiple homes in the Old Kingston community. Baggett said mobile homes and conventional homes were both damaged.
“It seems to have been a couple of different houses where people were at home,” Baggett said.
He said at least 12 people were injured severely enough to be taken to hospitals by emergency responders. Baggett said he didn’t know the extent of their injuries.
Autauga County, Alabama, is 41 miles (66 kilometers) northeast of Selma.
Officials estimate that 40 to 50 homes were damaged or destroyed by storms that cut a strip across the county, Baggett said. He said crews were focused Thursday evening on cutting through downed trees to look for people who may be injured.
“Search and rescue is really more what’s going on right now,” Baggett said.
In Selma, a city etched in the history of the civil rights movement, brick buildings collapsed, cars were on their side and traffic poles were strewn about in the downtown area. Plumes of thick, black smoke rose over the city from a fire burning. It was not 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 that no fatalities have been reported at this time, but first responders are continuing to assess the damage.
“People have been injured, but no fatalities,” Perkins said. “We have a lot of downed power lines. There is a lot of danger on the streets.”
A city curfew is being put into place, the mayor added.
The “large and extremely dangerous tornado” caused damage as it moved through the historic city, the National Weather Service said. There were confirmed reports of tree and structural damage in Selma and reports of damage in other counties, the agency said.
Nationwide, there were 33 separate tornado reports Thursday from the National Weather Service as of Thursday evening, with a handful of tornado warnings still in effect in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. However, the reports were not yet confirmed and some of them could later be classified as wind damage after assessments are done in coming days.
In Alabama, there is damage “all over Selma,” former state Sen. Hank Sanders said he has been told.
“A tornado has definitely damaged Selma. In fact, it hit our house, but not head-on. It blew out windows in the bedroom and in the living room. It is raining through the roof in the kitchen,” Sanders said.
Selma, a city of about 18,000 residents, is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of the Alabama capital city of Montgomery.
Selma was a flashpoint of the civil rights movement. 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.
After the tornado passed, Krishun Moore emerged from her home to the sound of children crying and screaming. She and her mother encouraged the kids to keep screaming until they found the two of them on top of the roof of a damaged apartment. She estimated the kids were about one and four years old. Both of them are OK, she said through Facebook messenger.
Malesha McVay drove parallel to the tornado with her family. She said it got less than a mile from her home before suddenly turning.
“We stopped and we prayed. We followed it and prayed,” she said. “It was a 100% God thing that it turned right before it hit my house.”
She 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.”
The weather service had issued a tornado emergency for several counties just north of the capital city of Montgomery as the same storm system moved eastward. “This is a life-threatening situation. Take shelter immediately,” the weather service said of the reported tornado.
There were multiple tornado warnings issued Thursday in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee as the storm system moved through the region.
More than 50,000 customers were without power in Alabama, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide.
In Georgia, more than 100,000 customers were without electricity just before sunset Thursday as the storm system carved a path across a tier of counties just south of Atlanta, according to PowerOutage.us.
The storm hit in Griffin, south of Atlanta, with winds damaging a shopping area, local news outlets reported. A Hobby Lobby store partially lost its roof, and at least one car was flipped in the parking lot of a nearby Walmart.
Damage was also reported west of downtown Atlanta in Douglas County and Cobb County, with Cobb County government posting a damage report showing a crumbled cinder block wall at a warehouse in suburban Austell.
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. There were reports of downed trees, power outages and other scattered damage from storms that moved through the state.
Associated Press writers Alina Hartounian in Phoenix, Arizona; Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Rebecca Reynolds in Louisville, Kentucky; and photographer Butch Dill in Selma, Alabama, contributed to this report.