JACKSON, Miss. – A twister roaring out of the darkness smashed through a small Alabama community early Wednesday during an outbreak of tornadoes across the Deep South, killing a 39-year-old woman and her 8-year-old son on a street where generations of one family lived.
One of dozens of tornadoes kicked up by a severe weather front that spent two days rolling from east Texas across several Southern states, the storm shocked people from their sleep in Flatwood, a sparsely populated community not far from the Alabama state capital of Montgomery.
In the early morning darkness, family members emerged from splintered homes to the sounds of screaming. Several homes in their community had been hit by falling trees, and a large pine tree crushed the bedroom of the mobile home where a father, mother and son were believed to be sleeping.
“The tree fell right slap in the middle of the bed while they were asleep. It fell on the wife and the kid,” family member Norman Bennett said of the victims.
The Montgomery County Sherriff's Office said the victims were a 39-year-old-woman and her 8-year-old son, but did not release their names. A man, who is the woman's husband and boy's father, was injured and taken to the hospital.
Bennett said the man was trapped under the tree and debris, and could not see what had happened to his wife and child. “He was hollering. ’Find my baby. Find my baby,” Bennett said.
For one couple in Flatwood, a split-second decision may have just saved them.
Caroline Bankston said she and Tim Wiseman were at home watching news reports about the weather and trying to figure out where the twister was when she looked out the dining room window and realized it was already on top of them. They ran to a safer corner as their roof caved in, burying their sofa under debris.
“We just prayed, prayed, prayed, ‘Please God Please take care of us. Please,’ and he did. You can replace stuff, but you can’t replace a person,” Bankston said, her voice still trembling. “We were just sitting there on the couch. Thank God we moved.”
The storm system fueled by record high temperatures spawned dozens of tornadoes on Tuesday and early Wednesday as it moved from east Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and neighboring states. Tornadoes damaged homes, destroyed a fire station and ripped the roof off an apartment complex in Mississippi. In Alabama, the same storm system also destroyed a community center and left a mess of toppled trees, downed power lines and debris.
A total of 73 tornado warnings and 120 severe thunderstorm warnings were issued from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday morning, said Matthew Elliott, a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
Montgomery County Sherriff Derrick Cunningham said a community center in Flatwood, on the same road where the fatalities occurred, was destroyed, and that search and rescue teams were going door to door Wednesday to account for all residents.
“We've got mobile homes that were flipped. We've got mobiles homes that had trees fall across them. There is a lot of damage back there, a lot of power lines that are down,” Cunningham said.
The National Weather Service Office in Birmingham classified the Flatwood storm as an EF-2 tornado, with winds estimated at 115 mph (185 kph).
Isaiah Sankey, who represents Flatwood as vice chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, expressed grief for the lives lost. He vowed that installing storm shelters would be a priority.
“When we do rebuild, we will have storm shelters,” Sankey said.
Elsewhere, in the west Alabama town of Eutaw, large sections of the roof were missing from an apartment complex, displacing 15 families in the middle of the night, and power lines and trees were “all over the road,” Eutaw Police Chief Tommy Johnson told WBRC-TV.
A suspected tornado also damaged numerous homes during the night in Hale County, Alabama, where the emergency director said more than a third of the people live in highly vulnerable mobile homes.
“I have seen some really nice mobile homes tied down, but they just don’t stand a chance against a tornado,” Hale County Emergency Management Director Russell Weeden told WBRC.
Two other people were injured as the storm tore apart homes in Caldwell Parish, Louisiana, Sheriff Clay Bennett told KNOE-TV.
The weather service confirmed that tornadoes also hit the ground in Mississippi. Images of the damage from Caledonia showed a grocery store damaged, a fire station shredded and a house toppled, but Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency Director Cindy Lawrence told WTVA-TV that everyone escaped injury.
Hail stones crashed against the windows of City Hall in the small town of Tchula, Mississippi, where sirens blared as the mayor and others took cover. “It was hitting against the window, and you could tell that it was nice-sized balls of it,” Mayor Ann Polk said.
High winds downed power lines, and flooding was a hazard as more than 5 inches (13 centimeters) of rain fell within hours in some places. More than 50,000 customers in Mississippi and Alabama were without electricity at one point Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outages.
Forecasters had been warning of a possible tornado outbreak for days. Elliott, who coordinates the warnings, said it took a lot of work to get the word out, and people seemed to take the threat seriously. “It’s a very vulnerable part of the country for tornadoes -- especially tornadoes after dark,” Elliott said.
Record high temperatures in Texas and Louisiana intensified the storm front before it moved into Mississippi and Alabama, forecasters said Wednesday.
Shreveport, Louisiana, heated up to 81 degrees (27.2 Celsius) on Tuesday; and Tyler, Texas, hit 82 degrees (27.8 Celsius), according to the National Weather Service in Shreveport. Both those marks broke the old record of 80, set in 1949, the weather service said.
Jeff Martin and Michael Warren in Atlanta; Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas; Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Mississippi; and Sara Cline in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.