NASHVILLE — Residents of Georgia and Alabama on Friday began cleaning up the wreckage after powerful tornadoes ripped through the two states during the night, killing at least six people, downing power lines and trees and shredding residential neighborhoods.
In Georgia, some of the worst destruction hit Newnan, a city of roughly 35,000 people about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. Officials in Coweta County reported one fatality in the area.
The Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center on Thursday recorded 24 preliminary tornado reports across Alabama and Georgia, as the region was bombarded by hail and heavy rainfall.
“I want to express my deep sympathy and regrets to each and every person that had property losses during the night, those that were injured,” said Sheriff Lenn Wood of Coweta County.
In Alabama, at least five people were killed as homes and businesses were leveled. The National Weather Service reported several tornadoes hitting Alabama, including one that traveled more than 100 miles, from near Birmingham to the northeast corner of the state.
In Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, the authorities were working from Thursday night into Friday morning, clearing roads made impassable by downed trees and utility lines and searching through the wreckage of homes to find anyone who might have been injured or killed.
The five deaths in Alabama were reported in Calhoun County, between Birmingham and the Georgia state line, where crews were performing search-and-rescue operations, officials said.
The victims included a family of three that lived in a wooden home in Ohatchee, a man in a mobile home in the same town and a woman in a mobile home in Wellington, the Calhoun County coroner, Pat Brown, said.
In Ohatchee, utility crews worked on Friday to clear downed power lines where the path of the tornado felled the roof of a large commercial building at the Ohatchee Industrial Park. Heavy equipment and men with chain saws worked to clear fallen trees. Nearby, a small mobile home lay on its roof.
The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office and Alabama State Troopers set up a makeshift outpost in a portable trailer at Oak Bowery Baptist Church in Ohatchee, where volunteers handed out food and water to those coming and going.
In Florence, Ala., a police officer was struck by lightning at the height of the afternoon storm, said Chief Mike Holt of the city’s police force. The officer suffered burns but survived. “He’s doing really well for someone who got struck by lightning,” Chief Holt said.
In and around Birmingham, many were grappling with damage to homes and businesses, some of it devastating, while officials worked to clear debris and help people stuck in their homes.
“Our priority at the moment is identifying those citizens in need of emergency medical attention,” John Samaniego, the sheriff in Shelby County, said in a statement. “This search-and-outreach effort will continue throughout the night and into the early morning hours.”
Meteorologists said a strong tornado scraped through a stretch of Georgia southwest of Atlanta just before midnight. Officials were not yet sure of the extent of the damage, but already, images were emerging early Friday that showed eviscerated homes, uprooted trees and tossed cars.
“The city experienced heavy damage in and around the historic downtown area due to tonight’s weather,” Newnan city officials said in a statement early Friday. “Please note that both the city and county crews are in route and working on scene to clear impacted areas. Please remain safe in your homes and take shelter. Stay safe!”
Newnan High School was significantly damaged, according to local media reports, and the county schools canceled both in-person and remote classes on Friday.
The barrage of dangerous storms started on Thursday after the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, urging residents facing the most imminent danger to “TAKE COVER NOW!” Forecasters also warned that other portions of those states, as well as Tennessee and Mississippi, could see storms that brought a high risk of tornadoes, as well as flash floods.
Officials warned residents to prepare as schools and government offices closed early. “Stay home, stay safe, stay informed,” Andy Berke, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., said on Twitter. In Birmingham, the city government opened safe rooms and put up barricades in areas prone to flooding.
On Thursday morning, Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama declared a state of emergency in over 20 counties and pressed residents “to closely monitor the weather system,” especially if their areas were at high risk.
The destructive weather returned a week after some of the same areas were hit by powerful storms that swept through Mississippi and Alabama before moving on to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. In January, a tornado in Alabama led to the death of a 14-year-old boy in Fultondale, a suburb of Birmingham; he had been sheltering in a basement with his relatives when a tree fell on the house.
In 2020, the United States had almost 1,000 tornadoes and 76 tornado deaths, according to preliminary counts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The National Weather Service suggests that people shelter in closets, bathrooms or an “interior hall” if a tornado is approaching. Those living in mobile homes should make sure to find a sturdier building or storm shelter. If outside, people should find a nearby ditch or a low spot and lie flat with their heads covered for protection.
“You really need to take action when the warnings are issued and not wait until you can see the danger,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the National Weather Service.
In Trussville, Ala., Hannah Carter rode out the storm at home, putting helmets on her two children and ushering them into a small closet along with herself, her husband and their dog.
“It’s been a crazy day,” she said.
She learned later that a tornado had come dangerously close to their home, but their property was unscathed. She recalled a tornado in 2011 that also came within a street or two or her home. “It was a very nostalgic, flashback experience,” Ms. Carter said. “It could have been much worse.”
In Birmingham, James Spann, the lead meteorologist for the area’s ABC affiliate stations and a fixture of local tornado coverage, was reporting on the storms when a tornado struck his own home.
“What I’m doing is texting my wife to be sure she’s in the shelter,” Mr. Spann said as a live camera shot showed a wide, billowing tornado.
For a few minutes, Mr. Spann’s colleague on the broadcast, Taylor Sarallo, took the lead.
“It’s not a good situation,” Mr. Spann said when he returned. “The reason I had to step out — we’ve had major damage at my house. My wife is OK, but the tornado came right through there.”
Rick Rojas reported from Nashville, Will Wright from New York and Christina Morales from Miami. Allyson Waller, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Eddie Burkhalter contributed reporting.