TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Tornadoes flattened homes and businesses, flipped trucks over on highways and bent telephone poles into 45-degree angles as they barreled through the South on Monday, killing at least nine people and unleashing severe thunderstorms, damaging hail and flash floods.
Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi, and thousands more hunkered down in basements and shelters as The National Weather Service issued watches and warnings for more tornadoes throughout the night in Alabama.
Weather satellites from space showed tumultuous clouds arcing across much of the South.
The system is the latest onslaught of severe weather a day after a half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the suburbs of Little Rock, Ark., killing at least 15. Tornadoes also killed one person each in Oklahoma and Iowa on Sunday.
Emergency officials attending a late-night news conference with Mississippi Gov. Gov. Phil Bryant said up to seven people have been reported killed. State Director of Health Protection Jim Craig said officials are working with coroners to confirm the total.
One of those deaths involved a woman who was killed when her car either hydroplaned or was blown off a road during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo, said Lee County Coroner Carolyn Gillentine Green.
In northern Alabama, the coroner’s office confirmed two deaths Monday in a twister that caused extensive damage west of the city of Athens, said Limestone County Emergency Director Rita White. White said more victims could be trapped in the wreckage of damaged buildings, but rescuers could not reach some areas because of downed power lines.
Separately, Limestone Commissioner Bill Latimer said he received reports of four deaths in the county from one of his workers. Neither the governor’s office nor state emergency officials could immediately confirm those deaths.
Numerous watches and warnings were still active in Alabama shortly before midnight Monday, with forecasters warning the severe weather could continue all night.
In Tupelo, Miss., a community of about 35,000 in northeastern Mississippi, every building in a two-block area south of U.S. Highway 78 had suffered damage, officials told a reporter on the scene. Some buildings had their roofs sheared off, while power lines had been knocked down completely or bent at 45-degree angles. Road crews were using heavy machinery to clear off other streets.
The Northeast Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo had received 30 patients as of Monday night, four of whom were being admitted with non-life-threatening injuries, said center spokeswoman Deborah Pugh. Pugh said the other 26 patients were treated for minor injuries and released.
Mississippi Republican Sen. Giles Ward huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their 19-year-old dog Monday as a tornado destroyed his two-story brick house and flipped his son-in-law’s SUV upside down onto the patio in Louisville, seat of Winston County and home to about 6,600.
“For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable,” Ward said. “It’s about as awful as anything we’ve gone through.”
He estimated that 30 houses in his neighborhood, Jordan Circle, were either destroyed or heavily damaged. After the storm had passed, Ward and his family went to a neighbor’s home where 19 people had waited out the tornado in a basement. He said six people were reported trapped in a basement in another home in the subdivision.
Altogether, 45 people had been injured in Louisville but no deaths had been reported, said Jack Mazurak (MAZ-er-ak), a spokesman for the Jackson-based University of Mississippi Medical Center, designated communications command post for disasters. Bryant declared a state of emergency Monday in advance of the storms, which sent emergency officials rushing to put plans in place.
The tornado in Louisville caused water damage and carved holes in the roof of the Winston Medical Center, Mazurak said. There were about 15 patients in hospital rooms and eight or nine in the emergency room, where evacuations were underway, Mazurak said.
“We thought we were going to be OK then a guy came in and said, `It’s here right now,'” said Dr. Michael Henry, head of the emergency room. “Then boom … it blew through.”
Residents and business owners were not the only ones seriously rattled by the tornadoes.
NBC affiliate WTVA-TV chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan in Tupelo, Miss., was reporting live on the severe weather about 3 p.m. when he realized the twister was coming close enough that maybe he and his staff should abandon the television studio.
“This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak. And this could be deadly,” he said in a video widely tweeted and broadcast on YouTube.
Moments later he adds, “A damaging tornado. On the ground. Right now.”
The video then shows Laubhan peeking in from the side to see if he is still live on the air before yelling to staff off-camera to get down in the basement.
“Basement, now!” he yells, before disappearing off camera himself.
Later, the station tweeted, “We are safe here.”
With the wind howling outside and rain blowing sideways, Monica Foster rode out a tornado warning with her two daughters, ages 10 and 12, inside a gas station near Fayette, Ala. One of the girls cried as the three huddled with a station employee in a storage area beside a walk-in cooler.
Foster, who was returning home to Lynn on rural roads after a funeral in Tuscaloosa, said she typically would have kept driving through the deluge.
“I wouldn’t have pulled in if I didn’t have the two girls,” she said.
In Memphis, Tenn., officials declared a state of emergency in a county southwest of Nashville because of flash flooding. Authorities urged people there to seek higher ground after several homes and some business were flooded in Maury County and school leaders worried that some school buses might not be able to get schoolchildren home over swamped roads.
The threat of dangerous weather jangled nerves a day after the three-year anniversary of a historic outbreak of more than 60 tornadoes that killed more than 250 people across Alabama on April 27, 2011.
George Grabryan, director of emergency management for Florence and Lauderdale County in northwest Alabama, said 16 shelters opened before storms even moved in and people were calling nervously with questions about the weather.
“There’s a lot of sensitivity up here,” Grabryan said. “I’ve got a stack of messages here from people, many of them new to the area, wanting to know where the closest shelters are.”