TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — At least three 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 one woman in Mississippi and unleashing severe thunderstorms, damaging hail and flash floods.
Local officials also reported six deaths in Alabama from a tornado. State emergency officials could not immediately confirm those deaths. Thousands of customers were without power in Alabama and Kentucky, where severe storms caused widespread damages.
Monday’s storm system was so huge it was visible from space, photographed by weather satellites that showed tumultuous clouds arcing across much of the South. The National Weather Service posted tornado watches and warnings around Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia that were in effect through Monday night.
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.
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.
The tornado in Louisville caused water damage and left holes in the roof in the back of the Winston Medical Center, where the emergency room and outpatient clinic are located. There were about 15 patients in hospital rooms and eight or nine in the emergency room, where evacuations were underway, Mazurak said. No deaths were reported.
“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.”
Also in Mississippi, Lee County Coroner Carolyn Gillentine Green said a woman died in a traffic accident during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo. Green said the vehicle may have hydroplaned or blown off the road.
Deborah Pugh, spokeswoman for the Northeast Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, said the hospital received 24 patients. She was 20 had minor injuries and were expected to be treated and released. She four others were undergoing further evaluation.
In northern Alabama, Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakeley confirmed two deaths in a mobile home park west of Athens, said city spokeswoman Holly Hollman. Hollman said Blakeley was in a meeting with county Emergency Management Agency officials and couldn’t come to the phone Monday evening.
Four people were killed in a district of Limestone County southeast of Athens, said Limestone County Commissioner Bill Latimer. Latimer said he was informed of the deaths by a county foreman, but that he had not made it to the scene himself yet. Neither the governor’s office nor emergency management officials could immediately confirm the deaths.
In Tupelo, 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.
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 showed Laubhan peeking in from the side to see if he was still live on the air before yelling to staff off-camera to get down in the basement.
“Basement, now!” he yelled, before disappearing off camera himself.
Later, the station tweeted, “We are safe here.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency Monday in advance of the storms, which sent emergency officials rushing to put plans in place.
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.”
Elsewhere, forecasters warned Georgia residents of a threat of tornadoes in northern and central counties in coming hours.