SELMA, Alabama. A giant vortex system raging south unleashed a tornado on Thursday that tore down walls, toppled roofs and uprooted trees in Selma, Alabama, a city inscribed in the history of the civil rights movement.
Brick houses collapsed, cars lay on their sides, and road poles were scattered in the city center. Clouds of thick black smoke from a burning fire rose above the city. It was not immediately known whether the storm had caused the fire.
Local firefighters in Selma responded to a fire at a warehouse located on JL Chestnut Avenue on Thursday afternoon.
A “large and extremely dangerous tornado” caused damage as it moved through the historic city, according to the National Weather Service.
There were no immediate reports of deaths, but the weather service said there were confirmed reports of damage to trees and structures in Selma, as well as reports of damage in other counties. More than 50,000 customers were left without power in Alabama, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks power outages nationwide.
According to former state senator Hank Sanders, the damage was “all over Selma.”
“The tornado definitely hurt Selma. In fact, he hit our house, but not on the forehead. He broke the windows in the bedroom and in the living room. In the kitchen, it rains through the roof,” Sanders said.
Selma, a city of about 18,000 people, is about 50 miles (80 km) west of Alabama’s capital, Montgomery.
Selma was a hotspot for the civil rights movement. Alabama State Troopers brutally attacked pro-vote blacks while marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Among those beaten by law enforcement officers was John Lewis, who had a fractured skull. He had a long and distinguished career as a US Congressman.
Selma Mayor James Perkins told WSFA that at least one person was trapped in a building on Broad Street and another person may be missing. There are several downed power lines and this is considered an emergency.
The outer skin of the two-story building was destroyed by the storm, photos from The Selma Times-Journal show. Huge pieces of insulation and metal were wrapped around the trunk of a tree, and fallen branches obscured a sign that said WELCOME TO HISTORIC SELMA.
Malesha McVeigh rode parallel to the tornado with her family. She said he drove less than a mile from her house before making a sudden turn.
“We stopped and prayed. We followed him and prayed,” she said. “It was 100% thanks to God that he turned right before crashing into my house.”
She filmed a giant twister that turned black as it flew home after home.
“She would enter the house and black smoke would rise,” she said. “This was really scary”.
The Met Office declared a tornado emergency in several counties north of the capital Montgomery as the same storm system moved east. “This is a life-threatening situation. Seek shelter immediately,” the weather service said of the tornado reports.
Several tornado warnings were issued across Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee Thursday as the storm system moved across the region.
In Georgia, more than 100,000 customers were left without power just before sunset on Thursday as the storm system cut a path through a number of counties south of Atlanta, according to PowerOutage.us.
The storm hit the town of Griffin, south of Atlanta, and the wind damaged the shopping district, according to local news outlets. The Hobby Lobby partially lost its roof and at least one car overturned in the parking lot of a nearby Walmart.
Damage was also reported west of downtown Atlanta in Douglas and Cobb counties, with the Cobb County government releasing a damage report showing a collapsed cinder block wall at a warehouse in suburban Austell.
In Kentucky, the National Weather Service in Louisville confirmed that an EF-1 tornado hit Mercer County and said crews were looking into damage in several other counties. There were reports of downed trees, power outages, and other scattered damage from hurricanes that swept across the state.