Witnesses recount deadly tornadoes in Alabama: ‘It came and it took them’

By Elijah Nouvelage

OHATCHEE, Ala. (Reuters) – A day after violent tornadoes killed at least five people in Alabama and left residents sorting through the destruction on Friday, storm forecasters issued another “severe weather risk” warning for the U.S. South this weekend.

In the wake of reports of 24 tornadoes striking Alabama and Georgia on Thursday, rough weather on Saturday could stir more tornadoes in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and the surrounding area, according to the National Weather Service.

Five people were killed in Alabama, NWS reported, although it could be days before the death count is finalized. Dozens of others were injured and entire neighborhoods destroyed.

A sixth death was tied to a tornado in Georgia.

In northern Alabama, the five confirmed fatalities were in Ohatchee, a town of about 1,200 people, according to the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.

Survivors described harrowing scenes of seeking cover from the twisters.

As she searched through a mountain of debris that a day earlier had been her father’s Alabama home, Rebecca Haynes Griffis recounted how her brother’s fast thinking helped both men survive the disaster.

“He saw it coming and he put my dad into a big bearhug and held onto him until things stopped moving,” Griffis told Reuters.

“The whole house started to contort around them. There was no roof all of a sudden. It came and it took them,” said Griffis, a COVID-19 travel nurse who was in Georgia when disaster struck in Ohatchee Thursday afternoon.

Her father, Mac Haynes, 78, and brother Philip Haynes, 50, landed in a cow pasture about 40 feet (12 meters) away from the foundation that once supported their trailer home, which was reduced to shreds.

Both men were hospitalized, with her father expected to be released on Friday. Her brother, who suffered fractures to his spine, ribs, shoulder and cheek, will remain hospitalized, said Griffis, as she sifted through the mountain of debris in search of family mementos.

“I found their wedding rings!” she said, clutching velvet boxes containing marriage bands worn by her father and his wife, now deceased.

Griffis, 48, said she has been frantically calling her father and brother from Georgia on Thursday to urge them to seek shelter in a neighbor’s home that has a basement.

“By the time they answered, it was on them,” Griffis said.

For three hours, the fire department cut through debris to reach the injured men in the field when suddenly winds started swirling again, possibly from a nearby tornado.

The fire department grabbed the men and fled to the nearby home’s basement, seeking refuge until they could safely transport the injured to a local hospital, Griffis said.

(Additional reporting and writing by Barbara Goldberg in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Arkansas, Oklahoma brace for historic flooding in storm-hit U.S. Midwest

A storm cloud is seen in Shawnee, Kansas, U.S. in this still image taken from a May 28, 2019 video obtained from social media. Daniel Hogue/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Communities along the swollen Arkansas River in Oklahoma and Arkansas prepared on Wednesday for further flooding, with the mayor of Tulsa urging thousands of residents behind the city’s aging levees to be ready to evacuate in the event of a “worst-case scenario.”

More than a week of stormy weather, including violent downpours and deadly tornadoes, has devastated the central United States, bringing record-breaking floods in parts of the two states, turning highways into lakes and submerging all but the roofs of some homes.

More rain is forecast, and the floods are expected to spread, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) and local officials.

A tornado and storm cloud is seen in Eudora, Kansas, U.S. in this still from a video taken May 28, 2019 obtained from social media. AJ SCOTT /via REUTERS

A tornado and storm cloud is seen in Eudora, Kansas, U.S. in this still from a video taken May 28, 2019 obtained from social media. AJ SCOTT /via REUTERS

“The rain has been coming fast and furiously and it all has to drain through the rivers,” Patrick Burke, a meteorologist at the NWS Weather Prediction Center, said in an interview on Wednesday. More heavy downpours were forecast through Wednesday night over much of the two states, with between 1 and 3 inches (2.5 to 7.6 cm) expected, he said.

By early June, rivers are expected to crest to the highest levels on record all the way down to Little Rock, Arkansas, Burke said.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second largest city, Mayor G.T. Bynum warned that the city’s 70-year-old levees were being tested “in a way that they have never been before.”

“Please prepare for the worst-case scenario that we’ve had in the history of the city,” he said on Tuesday. So far, he added, the 20-mile (32 km) levee system, which protects some 10,000 people, was working as designed.

At least six people have died as a result of the latest round of flooding and storms in Oklahoma, according to the state’s Department of Health.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has raised the release of water from the Keystone Dam, in northeastern Oklahoma on the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers about 23 miles from Tulsa, into the river system to 275,000 cubic feet per second to stop the dam from overflowing.

A plague of extreme weather has upended life in the region, with more than 300 tornadoes touching down in the Midwest in the last two weeks.

Several tornadoes touched down on Tuesday evening in Kansas, damaging homes, uprooting trees and ripping down power lines, according to the NWS. Tornadoes also pulverized buildings in western Ohio, killing one person, and injuring scores of others.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Bibles survive as tornado flattens 145-year-old Virginia church

Tornadoes caused widespread damage throughout the Gulf and Atlantic coasts earlier this week, though some of the most severe destruction was reported in Virginia.

Reports to the National Weather Service indicate tornadoes caused major damage to buildings throughout the state on Wednesday, and the Virginia State Police said four people were killed.

One of those tornadoes destroyed a 145-year-old church in Tappahannock, local television station WTVR reported, but about two dozen Bibles and song books survived the destruction.

The National Weather Service’s storm reports show that an EF3 tornado, a classification that is capable of producing winds from 136 to 165 mph, tore through Tappahannock on Wednesday.

WTVR reported that no one at the church was injured, as a planned bible study had been cancelled ahead of the severe weather, but at least 25 people were injured elsewhere in town.

Tappahannock is located in Essex County, about 95 miles south of Washington.

Elsewhere, local officials said tornadoes killed two people in Louisiana and another in Mississippi on Tuesday, while a falling tree killed a man in South Carolina on Wednesday.

Death toll rises to 8 as tornadoes sweep through Southeast

The death toll from the severe thunderstorms and tornadoes that damaged homes and businesses across the United States over the past two days now stands at eight, officials said.

The National Weather Service received 68 reports of tornadoes in the Gulf Coast and Southeast on Tuesday and Wednesday, along with about 500 reports of wind damage from Florida to Maine. The reports mentioned damages to homes and businesses, indicating some were destroyed, as well as numerous downed trees and power lines throughout the storm area.

Tornadoes were reported in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida on Tuesday, and Florida, Virginia and North Carolina on Wednesday. It’s possible that some of those storm reports reference the same funnel cloud, as there are numerous counties listed multiple times.

Officials said severe weather killed five people Wednesday, four in Virginia and one in South Carolina. They came a day after tornadoes killed two people in Louisiana and one in Mississippi.

The Virginia State Police said three people were killed in Waverly, where a funnel cloud was reportedly spotted, and “significant debris” left two state highways impassible in the area.

Officials in Appomattox County said one person was killed after a reported tornado left a trail of destruction that stretched at least eight miles. In a Facebook post, they said some 100 structures were damaged — 20 severely — and 40 percent of the county’s homes were without power.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, joining governors in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi who issued similar decrees for the severe weather.

McAuliffe’s office said the governor was heading out to survey the damage on Thursday.

The National Weather Service’s reports indicate multiple houses were destroyed near Richmond, Virginia, and five houses were damaged near Granville, North Carolina, a snippet of the storm’s impact.

The reports also say winds toppled trees and power lines in areas where tornadoes weren’t seen.

In South Carolina, the Darlington County Coroner’s Office said a 58-year-old man was killed by a falling tree as he tried to remove storm debris from a road near his home.

Those downed trees and limbs helped knock out power to tens of thousands of people along the East Coast, some of whom were still without electricity on Thursday morning.

That included about 45,000 customers in Connecticut, local utility company Eversource said.

Tornadoes kill three in the South, more possible along East Coast

Tornadoes killed at least three people and damaged dozens of homes and businesses as a powerful storm system swept through the Gulf Coast on Tuesday evening, officials said.

More tornadoes were possible along the East Coast today, the National Weather Service warned, saying parts of Virginia and North Carolina had the highest chance of seeing extreme weather.

The service’s Storm Prediction Center received 31 reports of tornadoes in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the Florida panhandle on Tuesday. Some of those reports may reference the same tornado, as several counties had multiple damage summaries listed.

The National Weather Service said one person was killed when a tornado destroyed a mobile home near Purvis, Mississippi. The St. James (Louisiana) Parish’s official Facebook page added that a tornado hit a mobile home park in Convent, killing two people and sending 30 to the hospital with injuries. The storm also damaged about 100 RVs and trailers there, officials wrote.

Elsewhere in Louisiana, the National Weather Service’s reports indicate tornadoes caused “significant damage” to a gym in Ascension Parish and “widespread structural damage” to homes and businesses in St. John the Baptist Parish. There were also several reports of winds knocking down trees and power lines, and one mention of a 120 mph gust near Mandeville.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency in seven parishes.

“I ask all Louisianans to pray for the victims of the terrible storms that touched down in Louisiana today and especially at the Sugar Hill RV Park in Convent,” he said in a statement.

Governors in Alabama and Mississippi also declared states of emergency ahead of the storms.

The National Weather Service is expecting strong-to-severe thunderstorms from New York to Florida on Wednesday, but said severe weather was most likely to hit northeast North Carolina and southeast Virginia. The service said there was a “moderate risk” of severe thunderstorms in those areas, the second-highest level on a five-tier system, and tornadoes were a possibility.

The service issued several flash flood watches and wind advisories throughout the mid-Atlantic and southeast. Residents in the storm’s path are encouraged to monitor their local forecasts.

Two killed as tornadoes sweep through Florida

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) – Two grandparents were killed and four children injured in Florida early on Sunday when severe storms gusted in from the Gulf of Mexico, spinning off at least two tornadoes, local officials and the National Weather Service said.

Steven Wilson, 58, died when a twister destroyed a mobile home with seven people inside in Duette, Florida, about an hour south of Tampa, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office said.

Kelli Wilson, 51, escaped with their son and grandchildren. She was later pronounced dead at a hospital, said Dave Bristow, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

She suffered a heart attack, the Bradenton Herald reported.

The four grandchildren – two boys and two girls between the ages of six and 10 – were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries, according to the sheriff’s office.

One of the children was severely injured, the National Weather Service’s Tampa office reported, confirming that a strong tornado blasting winds up to 127 miles per hour had touched down in the area around 3:30 a.m. ET.

Another tornado was reported further south on Florida’s west coast in Siesta Key, according to the weather service.

The storms dumped heavy rains and blasted strong winds across the state’s central Gulf Coast, but conditions were improving during the day on Sunday.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Ros Russell and Alan Crosby)