Rescuers search through rubble looking for survivors in wake of deadly Alabama tornado

Published 2:42 pm Friday, January 13, 2023

Rescuers raced Friday to find survivors in the aftermath of a tornado-spawning storm system that killed at least nine people as it barreled across parts of Georgia and Alabama and inflicted heavy damage on Selma, a flashpoint of the civil rights movement.

Authorities described widespread destruction that included people trapped beneath collapsed homes, uprooted trees sent crashing through buildings, thousands of homes left without power and a freight train that derailed amid powerful winds.

Those who emerged with their lives gave thanks Friday as they picked through the wreckage to see what could be salvaged.

“God was sure with us,” Tracey Wilhelm said as she surveyed the shattered remnants of her mobile home in Alabama’s Autauga County.

She was at work Thursday when a tornado lifted her mobile home from its foundation and dumped it several feet away in a heap of rubble. Her husband and their five dogs scrambled into a shed that stayed intact, she said. Rescue workers later found them inside unharmed.

About 100 rescuers — both professionals and volunteers — searched the rubble Friday looking for people, Autauga County Coroner Buster Barber said.

The National Weather Service, which was working to confirm the twisters, said suspected tornado damage was reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and five in Georgia.

The twister blamed for killing at least seven people in rural Autauga County left damage consistent with a powerful EF3 tornado, packing winds of at least 136 mph (218 kph), the weather service said. Downtown Selma, about 40 miles ((64 kilometers) to the southwest, also experienced severe damage before worst of the weather moved across Georgia south of Atlanta.

At least 12 people were taken to hospitals, Ernie Baggett, Autauga County’s emergency management director, said as crews cut through downed trees looking for survivors.

About 40 homes were destroyed or seriously damaged, including several mobile homes that were launched into the air, he said.

“They weren’t just blown over,” he said. “They were blown a distance.”

In Selma, a city etched in the history of the civil rights movement, the city council met on a sidewalk using lights from cellphones and declared a state of emergency.

A 5-year-old child riding in a vehicle was killed by a falling tree in central Georgia’s Butts County, said Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director James Stallings. He said a parent who was driving suffered critical injuries.

Elsewhere, a state Department of Transportation worker also was killed while responding to storm damage, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said. He gave no further details.

Kemp surveyed some of the worst storm damage Friday by helicopter. In some areas, he said, rescue teams had to dig into collapsed homes to free trapped survivors.

“We know people that were stranded in homes where literally the whole house collapsed, and they were under the crawl space,” Kemp told reporters.

The governor said the storm inflicted damage statewide, with some of the worst around Troup County near the Georgia-Alabama line, where more than 100 homes were hit and at least 12 people were treated at a hospital.

John Reed’s wife pleaded with him several times before he joined her in a closet where they took shelter as a suspected tornado bore down on their Troup County home. Fierce winds stripped the roof off the couple’s house and hurled wooden boards into the grill of their SUV.

“It was maybe five seconds, and I opened the door and there was no ceiling,” John Reed told The LaGrange Daily News. “Everything had just caved in.”

In Spalding County, south of Atlanta, the storm struck as mourners gathered for a wake at Peterson’s Funeral Home in Griffin. About 20 people scrambled for shelter in a restroom and an office when a loud boom sounded as a large tree fell on the building.

“When we came out, we were in total shock,” said Sha-Meeka Peterson-Smith, the funeral home’s chief operational officer. “We heard everything, but didn’t know how bad it actually was.”

The uprooted tree crashed straight through the front of the building, she said, destroying a viewing room, a lounge and a front office. No one was hurt.

The tornado that hit Selma cut a wide path through the downtown area, where brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were tossed onto their sides and power lines were left dangling.

Plumes of thick, black smoke from a fire rose over the city. It wasn’t clear whether the storm caused the blaze.

Selma Mayor James Perkins said no fatalities were reported, but several people were seriously injured. Officials hoped to get an aerial view of the city Friday.

“We have a lot of downed power lines,” he said. “There is a lot of danger on the streets.”

Mattie Moore was among Selma residents who picked up boxed meals offered by a charity downtown.

“Thank God that we’re here. It’s like something you see on TV,” Moore said of the destruction.

A city of about 18,000 people, Selma is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Montgomery, the Alabama capital. It was a flashpoint of the civil rights movement where state troopers viciously attacked Black people who marched non-violently for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

Malesha McVay took video of the giant twister, which turned black as it swept away home after home.

“It would hit a house, and black smoke would swirl up,” she said. “It was very terrifying.”

Three factors — a natural La Nina weather cycle, warming of the Gulf of Mexico likely related to climate change and a decades-long eastward shift of tornado activity — combined to make Thursday’s unusual tornado outbreak, said Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University who studies tornado trends.