Residents of communities across the Southeast are spending Christmas trying to put the pieces back together after an outbreak of severe storms, including tornadoes, killed at least 15 people and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes — as another twister touched down in Alabama Friday evening.
“Santa brought us a good one, didn’t he?” Bobby Watkins said Thursday as he and his wife took a walk amid the destruction in rural Benton County, Mississippi, where four people — including a married couple and two neighbors on the same street — were confirmed dead and their homes destroyed. “I may have lost some stuff, but I got my life.”
On Christmas Day, the National Weather Service confirmed that another tornado touched down in the region, near Birmingham, Ala., around 5 p.m. local time.
Lt. Sean Edwards, a Birmingham police spokesman, said trees are down and people were trapped inside damaged houses but there were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths.
The twister caused some “significant damage” in the southwestern part of town, NWS meteorologist Jody Aaron told Reuters.
Weather radar Friday evening showed an intense system along the Interstate 20/59 corridor west of Birmingham, with the storm moving eastward. Flooding was reported in counties throughout the region, as heavy rain continued to fall.
Ruthie Green went door-to-door in a coat and a bicycle helmet to check on neighbors after the storm and swept debris from her front porch as more emergency responders arrived in the neighborhood.
“I been listening to the news all day so I was kind of preparing,” Green said. When the tornado warning came up on her iPad, Green said she ran to a closet. “Then I heard the big roaring, it didn’t last more than three minutes,” Green said. “I just laid down and just kept praying.”
The Birmingham tornado was the latest development in an ongoing series of storms that has hammered the South during Christmas week.
Unseasonably warm weather Wednesday helped spawn twisters from Arkansas to Michigan. The line of springlike storms moved east Thursday, dumping torrential rain that flooded roads elsewhere in Alabama and caused a mudslide in the mountains of Georgia.
One person in Mississippi was reported dead Friday night, as a severe weather system passed through Coahoma County, the state’s emergency management agency said.
Authorities confirmed seven more deaths in Mississippi, including a 7-year-old boy who was in a car that was swept up and tossed by a storm. Dozens more were injured, some seriously, said Greg Flynn, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Elsewhere, six people were confirmed to have died in Tennessee, while an 18-year-old woman was killed in Arkansas when a tree fell on her bedroom.
In Benton County, one of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi, search teams combed damaged homes and businesses for missing people. The hunt was made complicated because so many had left for the holidays.
“Until they know for sure where those folks are, they’re going to keep looking, because we’ve had in some cases houses leveled, and they’re just not there anymore,” Flynn said.
In Linden, Tennessee, Tony Goodwin ducked into a storm shelter with seven others as the storm passed. He emerged to find his house had been knocked off its foundation and down the hill.
He managed to climb inside and fetch some Christmas gifts that had been under his tree. Goodwin’s neighbors weren’t so fortunate. Two people in one home were killed.
“It makes you thankful to be alive with your family,” he said. “It’s what Christmas is all about.”
Chris Shupiery grabbed his Santa hat along with a chain saw as he set out to help clean up on Thursday. He cut up fallen trees not far from Goodwin’s home.
“This was just the right thing to do, come help a family in need,” Shupiery said. “Suit up, try to cheer people up and try to make them feel a little better with Christmas coming around.”
Back in Benton County, Miss., relatives helped Daisy and Charles Johnson clean up after the storm flattened their house. They carried some of the couple’s belongings past a Santa Claus figure on a table.
Daisy Johnson, 68, said she and her husband rushed along with other relatives to their storm shelter across the street from the house after they heard a twister was headed their way.
“We looked straight west of us and there it was. It was yellow and it was roaring, lightning just continually, and it was making a terrible noise,” she said. “I never want to hear that again for as long as I live.”
Mona Ables, 43, was driving home when the storm hit. She abandoned her car, ran to a house and banged on a window, seeking shelter.
The startled man inside couldn’t open the door, which appeared to be blocked, Ables said. She huddled next to the house as another stranger pulled up, also looking for shelter.
“He and I just huddled together and saw trees fly past us, and a shipping container flip over,” Ables said. “And as the debris started hitting us, he just covered me, and within a minute it was all over and there was destruction all around us and we were fine.”
Peak tornado season in the South is in the spring, but such storms can happen at any time. Exactly a year ago, twisters hit Mississippi, killing five people and injuring dozens.
Glenda Hunt, 69, was cooking chicken and making dressing Wednesday night at her Benton County home, where Christmas Eve lunch is a family tradition, when her daughter called to warn her of the approaching storm.
Hunt and her husband ducked into their storm shelter and wrestled the door shut against the wind’s powerful suction. She started praying when she heard sheet metal hitting trees.
On Thursday, heavy farm equipment and corn were strewn across the couple’s property. Their house sustained heavy structural damage but was still standing.
“We’re OK and that’s all that matters,” Hunt said. “But the Lord did save my furniture.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.