Adrian Sainz and Jeff Amy
TUPELO, Miss.: 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. It flattened rows of homes, shredded cars along a highway and demolished a brand-new school before it even had a chance to open.
Tornadoes also killed one person each in Oklahoma and Iowa on Sunday.
Officials said the death toll could have been worse if residents hadn’t piled into underground storm shelters and fortified safe rooms after listening to forecasts on TV and radio, getting cellphone alerts or calls or texts from loved ones, and hearing sirens blare through their neighborhoods.
Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, population 3,800. Firefighters on Monday searched for anyone trapped amid the piles of splintered wood and belongings strewn across yards. Hospitals took in more than 100 patients.
In 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.
In north Alabama, Limestone County Emergency Director Rita White said the coroner’s office had confirmed two deaths in a twister that caused extensive damage west of the city of Athens.
White says still more victims might be trapped in the wreckage of damaged buildings, but rescuers can’t reach some areas because of downed power lines. Separately, Limestone Commissioner Bill Latimer says he has reports from a worker of at least four deaths in the county.
In Mississippi, Lee County Coroner Carolyn Gillentine Green confirms a woman died Monday when her car either hydroplaned or blew off a road during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo.