By Aya Elamroussi, Jason Hanna and Joe Sutton, CNN
Recovery and search efforts continued in the South on Friday, a day after severe storms and tornadoes raked the region, killing at least nine people, blowing roofs off homes and cutting power for thousands.
At least seven people were killed in central Alabama’s Autauga County, with two others — including a 5-year-old boy — killed in Georgia, officials said. In those states and Kentucky, at least 37 preliminary tornado reports were recorded in storms that damaged power lines, severed tree limbs and sent debris flying into streets.
Damage from what appeared to be two tornadoes — preliminarily rated an EF-3 and an EF-2 — were found in two parts of Spalding County, in central Georgia, according to the National Weather Service. EF-2 damage was found in three more nearby counties extending to the east, the weather service said, which added that the total number of tornadoes is still being determined.
Tornadoes rated EF-2 pack winds of at least 111 mph while EF-3 tornadoes contain winds between 136 and 165 mph.
A particularly damaging storm with at least one powerful tornado also tore through both Selma — an Alabama city known for its role in the civil rights movement — and a community in Autauga County, situated one county to the east, the National Weather Service said.
Searches continued Friday in Autauga County as officials still weren’t sure everyone who may have lived in damaged homes was accounted for, state emergency management official Ricky Adams told CNN Friday.
“Our top priority today again continues to be life-saving in any of those areas where search and rescue is being conducted,” said Adams, who gave the county’s death toll as seven.
Authorities there were “finding more bodies” Friday morning, Coroner Buster Barber said earlier. It wasn’t immediately clear whether that was reflected in the toll.
The search and rescue phase of the response efforts will transition to a recovery phase Saturday, Autauga County Emergency Management Agency Director Ernie Baggett told CNN Friday afternoon.
In adjacent Dallas County, a huge tornado caused widespread destruction in Selma, home to about 17,000 people. At a Selma tax office, Deborah Brown and others had to rush to safety after seeing what looked like a tornado rolling down the street, she said.
“We could have been gone, y’all,” Brown said in a Facebook video. “We had to run for cover. We had to go run and jump in the closet.”
While the damage was “tremendous,” no fatalities have been reported, Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr. said Friday.
After conducting an aerial tour of the damage, the mayor grew emotional as he talked about the communities that were hit — including the neighborhood he grew up in that was ravaged.
“It’s tough,” he said. “A lot of people are hurting. The devastation is real. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“While these areas of damage were caused by the same storm, it is not yet known if there was a continuous path of damage,” the weather service said. A day earlier, a weather service meteorologist said the Selma tornado may have been on the ground for at least 50 miles.
The damage, “was far worse than anything I had envisioned,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said while visiting Selma Friday. “Roofs are just gone, trees look like toothpicks.”
In central Georgia’s Butts County, a 5-year-old was killed when a tree fell on top of a car, the county coroner’s office said. A state employee also was killed by falling debris while responding to the storms, Gov. Brian Kemp said Friday.
Thursday’s severe storms left about 40,000 homes and businesses still in the dark Friday morning across Georgia and Alabama, according to tracking site PowerOutage.us.
The storms marked the latest bout of severe weather to turn deadly in the US as experts point to the human-induced climate crisis as a cause for such extreme events. Millions in California are reeling from weeks of flooding rain that has killed at least 18 people and left thousands without power.
Selma’s mayor asked residents to conserve water after outages affected treatment facilities and the storms made way for much cooler, albeit sunny, weather across the region.
“We’ve got to layer up and get ready,” Perkins said as overnight lows over the next several days were due to dip below freezing.
Governors in Alabama and Georgia declared states of emergency in stricken areas to help with rescue and cleanup efforts.
On Friday, Ivey said she would reach out to President Joe Biden to encourage him to declare a state of emergency.
Damage will take days to survey
In addition to tornado and storm destruction, damaging winds spun across the region from Mississippi to Virginia.
Across the South and the central US, more than 160 damaging wind reports were recorded in Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Nineteen severe hail reports were recorded in Kentucky, Ohio, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia.
In northeast Mississippi, several buildings lay flattened or severely damaged in Monroe County after a storm passed through Thursday morning, video tweeted by the state’s emergency management agency shows. No injuries were reported there, the agency said.
Tornado damage in Alabama’s Dallas County — home to Selma — spanned the length of the county, coroner William Alan Dailey said in a video conference.
Krishun Moore’s house in Selma was torn up when a storm sent her and her mother to shelter in their bathroom, she said. “All we heard was wind and the whole house was shaking,” Moore told CNN, adding no one was injured.
Damage in downtown Selma made it nearly impossible to leave the area Thursday, said Priscilla Lewis, who shared photos it with CNN. No deaths were reported in Dallas County as of Thursday, but some residents were hurt.
“This is a disaster area. Power lines are down and trees are down — this is really dangerous,” Dallas County Probate Judge Jimmy Nunn said during a news conference.
In neighboring Autauga County, at least 20 homes were either damaged or destroyed, according to Gary Weaver, the deputy director of the county’s emergency management agency.
Damage survey teams will be in the field over the next several days across the area, the National Weather Service in Birmingham said.
Storms left some students trapped in school
As storm damage blocked roads in Georgia, some students couldn’t leave four middle schools south of Atlanta, their school system said Thursday night.
By Friday morning, more than two dozen students were reunited with their families, Griffin-Spalding County School System said in a social media post, after they had to shelter on school grounds because storm debris had blocked roadways.
Spalding County declared a state of emergency Thursday due to a reported tornado there, officials said on Facebook, urging residents to shelter in place. Parts of the state were under a tornado watch Thursday night.
“When you start getting onto the roads, there’s going to be no way to get to where you’re going,” said T.J. Imberger, Spalding County public works director.
The Griffin-Spalding School District will be closed Friday as the area recovers.
In Alabama, Selma City Schools said in a statement many of the district’s families had been displaced by the storm.
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CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn, Tina Burnside, Taylor Ward, Haley Brink, Melissa Alonso, Paul P. Murphy and Amanda Jackson contributed to this report.