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Tornadoes fueled by record-high heat wreck homes, kill 2 in the Deep South

People surrounded by downed trees and branches huddle outside a tornado-damaged mobile home.
People pray outside a damaged mobile home in Flatwood, Ala., on Wednesday, a day after a severe storm swept through the area.
(Butch Dill / Associated Press)
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A twister roaring out of the darkness smashed through a small Alabama community early Wednesday during an outbreak of tornadoes across the Deep South, killing a 39-year-old woman and her 8-year-old son.

One of dozens of tornadoes kicked up by a severe weather front that spent two days rolling from east Texas across several Southern states, the storm shocked people from their sleep in Flatwood, Ala., a sparsely populated community not far from the state capital of Montgomery.

In the morning darkness, the victims’ relatives living on the same street emerged from splintered homes to the sounds of screaming. Several homes in their community had been hit by falling trees, and a large pine crushed the bedroom of the mobile home where a father, mother and son were believed to have been sleeping.

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“The tree fell right slap in the middle of the bed while they were asleep. It fell on the wife and the kid,” family member Norman Bennett said of the victims.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office released the ages of the woman and her son, but not their names. One man — the woman’s husband and boy’s father — was injured and taken to the hospital.

Bennett said the man had been trapped under the tree and debris, and could not see what had happened to his wife and child.

“He was hollering, ‘Find my baby. Find my baby,’” Bennett said.

Another couple in Flatwood may have been saved by a split-second decision.

Caroline Bankston said she and Tim Wiseman were at home watching news reports about the weather and trying to figure out where the twister was, when she looked out the dining room window and realized it was already on top of them. They ran to a safer corner as their roof caved in, burying their sofa under debris.

“We just prayed, prayed, prayed, ‘Please, God, please take care of us. Please,’ and he did. You can replace stuff, but you can’t replace a person,” Bankston said, her voice still trembling. “We were just sitting there on the couch. Thank God we moved.”

The storm system, fueled by record-high temperatures, spawned dozens of tornadoes on Tuesday and early Wednesday as it moved from east Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and neighboring states. Twisters damaged homes, destroyed a fire station and ripped the roof off an apartment complex in Mississippi. In Alabama, the storm system destroyed a community center and left a mess of toppled trees, downed power lines and debris.

A total of 73 tornado warnings and 120 severe thunderstorm warnings were issued from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday morning, said Matthew Elliott, a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

Montgomery County, Ala., Sheriff Derrick Cunningham said a community center was destroyed on the same road in Flatwood where the fatalities occurred, and that search-and-rescue teams were going door to door Wednesday to account for all residents.

“We’ve got mobile homes that were flipped. We’ve got mobiles homes that had trees fall across them. There is a lot of damage back there — a lot of power lines that are down,” Cunningham said.

The National Weather Service Office in Birmingham, Ala., classified the Flatwood storm as an EF-2 tornado, with winds estimated at 115 mph.

Isaiah Sankey, who represents Flatwood on the Montgomery County Commission as vice chairman, expressed grief for the lives lost. He pledged that installing storm shelters would be a priority.

“When we do rebuild, we will have storm shelters,” Sankey said.

In the west Alabama town of Eutaw, large sections of roof were torn from an apartment complex, displacing 15 families in the middle of the night, and power lines and trees were “all over the road,” Eutaw Police Chief Tommy Johnson told WBRC-TV.

A suspected tornado also damaged numerous homes overnight in Hale County, Ala., where the emergency director said more than a third of residents live in highly vulnerable mobile homes.

“I have seen some really nice mobile homes tied down, but they just don’t stand a chance against a tornado,” Hale County Emergency Management Director Russell Weeden told WBRC.

In Louisiana, two people were injured as the storm tore apart homes in Caldwell Parish, Sheriff Clay Bennett told KNOE-TV.

The weather service confirmed that tornadoes also hit the ground in Mississippi. Images from the small town of Caledonia showed a grocery store damaged, a fire station shredded and a house toppled. Cindy Lawrence, director of the Lowndes County, Miss., Emergency Management Agency, told WTVA-TV that everyone had escaped injury.

Hail crashed against the windows of City Hall in the small town of Tchula, Miss., where sirens blared as the mayor and others took cover.

The hail “was hitting against the window, and you could tell that it was nice-sized balls of it,” Mayor Ann Polk said.

High winds downed power lines, and flooding was a hazard as more than 5 inches of rain fell within hours in some places. More than 50,000 customers in Mississippi and Alabama were without electricity at one point Wednesday, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks utility outages across the nation.

Forecasters had been warning of a possible tornado outbreak for days. Elliott, the Storm Prediction Center meteorologist, said it took a lot of work to get the word out, and people seemed to take the threat seriously. “It’s a very vulnerable part of the country for tornadoes — especially tornadoes after dark,” he said.

Record-high temperatures in Texas and Louisiana intensified the storm front before it moved into Mississippi and Alabama, forecasters said Wednesday.

Shreveport, La., heated up to 81 degrees Tuesday; and Tyler, Texas, hit 82, according to the National Weather Service in Shreveport. Both temperatures broke the old records of 80, set in 1949, the agency said.

Jeff Martin and Michael Warren in Atlanta; Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Ark.; Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Miss.; and Sara Cline in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.


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