Emergency services were hard at work Friday searching for people trapped after multiple tornadoes ripped through parts of the southern United States as part of a storm system that killed at least nine people in the states of Alabama and Georgia and caused extensive damage to the historic city of Selma, Alabama, a city whose name was etched in the history of the American civil rights movement.
A fuller picture of the damage was expected to emerge later in the day as crews examined the scarred affected areas. At least 35 possible tornadoes were reported on land in several states, according to the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The National Weather Service, which was working to confirm the tornadoes, said tornado damage was reported in at least 14 Alabama counties and five Georgia counties.
Tens of thousands of customers were without power in both states on Friday, according to PowerOutage.us, which monitors power outages across the United States.
A tornado tore through two rural Alabama communities for 20 miles (32 kilometers) Thursday, destroying dozens of homes, said Ernie Baggett, the county’s emergency management director. That was before the worst of the bad weather swept through Georgia on a route south to Atlanta.
Crews in Autauga County found a body after dawn near a heavily damaged home, authorities said. That death brought the death toll to seven in Alabama County, located 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Selma.
At least 12 people suffered injuries serious enough to be taken to hospitals, Baggett added to The Associated Press. She added that crews were cutting downed trees in search of survivors.
He said about 40 homes were destroyed or badly damaged, including several mobile homes that were thrown into the air. “They weren’t just shot down by air. They flew some distance.”
In Selma, council members gathered on a sidewalk using their cellphone lights to declare a state of emergency.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Friday that a state Department of Transportation worker died while responding to storm damage. He did not elaborate.
Another death occurred in Butts County, central Georgia, where a passenger died after a tree fell on the vehicle he was traveling in during a storm, said county coroner Lacey Prue. In that same county, southeast of Atlanta, the storm apparently caused a train derailment, authorities said.
Three factors — a natural La Niña weather cycle, warming of the Gulf of Mexico likely related to climate change, and a decades-long eastward shift in tornado activity — combined to make Thursday’s tornado surge a unusual and damaging, explained Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University who specializes in studying tornado trends.
La Nina, a cooling of parts of the Pacific that changes weather around the world, was a factor in creating a rippled jet stream that brought a cold front, Gensini added. But that’s not enough for a tornado outbreak. The other ingredient was moisture.