A deadly supercell thunderstorm spawned a long-tracking tornado across parts of Alabama on Thursday, just a week after another round of severe weather left extensive damage across the Southeast.
At least six fatalities have been reported from the day, five of which came from outside of Birmingham, Alabama’s most populous city, as scenes of destruction flooded social media in the hours after the storms hit. The other death came in Coweta County, Georgia, early Friday morning.
In all, Thursday saw 23 tornado reports according to the NOAA Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Mississippi saw one twister and Georgia reported five as Alabama took the brunt of the day’s severity, totaling 17 tornadoes on the day.
The storm first spawned a tornado south of Tuscaloosa around midday Thursday, AccuWeather Meteorologist Brian Lada said, with the tornado threat continuing as the storm trekked northeastward. As it moved just south of Birmingham, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a rare tornado emergency, typically reserved for the most extreme situations when there is a high risk to lives and property due to a confirmed tornado.
Shortly before 2 p.m. CDT, a large tornado tracked through the southeastern area of Birmingham, Alabama, leaving trees snapped and power lines downed across communities in its wake.
The Pelham Police Department in Shelby County stressed for people to stay off the roads and to stay away from tornado-damaged areas, and also confirmed that several homes had been damaged in the area and there had been “extensive damage” in the Crosscreek community.
The storm continued taking a west-to-northeast trajectory across the state, triggering reports of tornadoes rising in Hale, Bibb, St. Clair, Shelby, which borders Birmingham, and Calhoun counties.
In Georgia, a tornado emergency was prompted in the Atlanta suburb of Newnan just after midnight and several reports of downed trees and power lines soon emerged, according to The Associated Press.
“It’s still dark so it’s hard to assess all of the damage but we believe we have 30 broken poles,” Newnan Utilities general manager Dennis McEntire said. “We serve about 10,000 customers and about half are without electricity right now.”
McEntire added that the damage from the storm was so severe that it would take days to fully piece the electrical system together again.
Drone footage over the Newnan area captured the widespread destruction left behind by the twister, as many homes, offices and school buildings throughout the city were left crumbled or without roofs. Entire streets saw demolition from the severe weather, leaving weeks worth of cleanup ahead.
On Friday morning, Coweta County authorities reported one fatality from Thursday’s storms, raising the total outbreak death toll to at least six.
“We had a pretty catastrophic storm hit our town last night,” Coweta County EMA Michael Terrell said Friday morning.
The Newnan High School received extensive damage and the impact was so severe in that area of the town that officials were forced to block access to the public. According to 11Alive, Newnan Fire Chief Stephen Brown said the damage was “overwhelming” and crews needed to go door-to-door to check on residents.
Although it’s not unheard of for tornadoes to impact the northern Georgia region, Terrell said that as the sun came up on Friday and the full scope of damage was better understood, the findings may be shocking.
“I kind of think about this kind of stuff when you look out in the Midwest, Oklahoma,” he said of the impact. “I think you’re going to see that same kind of damage here and when you look around Newnan and our county.”
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After a tornado reportedly tracked near the towns of Ohatchee and Wellington, Alabama, about 60 miles east of Birmingham, the Calhoun County coroner confirmed at least five fatalities in the area, according to 6WBRC.
The coroner added that three family members were killed in the same house and the fourth person was killed in a mobile home. The fifth fatality was reported along Wellington Road.
Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade reported at least two injuries in the area, according to WVTM13. He added that multiple structures in the area had also been damaged or destroyed.
Between the tornado emergencies and warnings, the NWS office in Birmingham, Alabama, posted Thursday evening over Twitter that a tornado had moved just south of its office. Despite the wind gusts reaching up to 46 knots, or 54 mph, the building still had commercial power after the storm had passed.
As ABC 33/40 meteorologist James Spann covered the severe weather event unfolding across his state, a moment came when he had to briefly step off camera.
“The reason I had to step out, we had major damage at my house,” Spann said upon returning to the broadcast a few minutes later. “My wife is OK, but the tornado came right through there and it’s not good, it’s bad. It’s bad.”
After sharing the news, he carried on with his coverage of the storm. A GoFundMe page aimed at raising money to help Spann has since been launched.
“James Spann is an incredible meteorologist from Alabama,” said Andre Brooks, the creator of the page.
Spann later released a statement that his wife was in the home when it was hit by the tornado, but she was safe because she was in their in-home shelter.
“While we lost many trees, the home is intact and we will not have to ‘rebuild,'” Spann said. “Please consider helping others across the state who have much more serious damage.”
This event marks the second time this month that storm-weary residents across the Southeast have found themselves in a “high-risk” area, a warning that’s already considered rare for the SPC to issue.
The SPC released its most urgent warning Thursday, March 25, a week after issuing its last warning at the same level. This was the first time since 1991 that the SPC had issued its most urgent warning for two separate events during the month of March.