An outbreak of severe weather, including several destructive tornadoes, swept across the South Thursday, killing at least five people in Alabama and one in Georgia. The swarm of storms came after roughly 50 tornadoes tore through the region last week.

An extremely volatile atmospheric setup prompted the National Weather Service to declare a rare level 5 out of 5 “high risk” for severe thunderstorms, focused in Alabama but touching several surrounding states.

During the mid-afternoon Thursday, a tornadic thunderstorm carved a 100-plus mile path across north central Alabama into northwest Georgia, spawning multiple twisters while passing south of Tuscaloosa and then south and east of Birmingham. The tornadoes left behind pockets of severe damage along with reports of injuries and fatalities.

A tornado killed at least five people in Calhoun County, Ala., located between Birmingham and the Georgia border. Among the dead are a family of three that lived in a wood-frame house in the small town of Ohatchee, along with a man and a woman who lived in mobile homes in Ohatchee and Wellington, respectively, county coroner Pat Brown told The Washington Post.

“It’s just destruction in those areas,” Brown said.

The storm’s deadliness recalled an April 2011 tornado that killed 13 in Calhoun County, Brown said. Local first responders drill for these emergencies, but no amount of preparation can steel you for the real thing, he added.

“They call this tornado alley, you know?” Brown said. “We’re very accustomed to storms, and we know in the spring time that we deal with these, but you never really prepare for them.”

There have been reports of downed trees and damaged homes and businesses in Calhoun County and across the state, with some houses reduced to rubble.

In Florence, in the northwest corner of the state, a police officer was struck by lighting while setting up street barricades. He was hospitalized and is conscious and responsive, the department said.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement that she has received “reports of loss of life.”

“Significant and dangerous weather continues to impact portions of Alabama, and I urge all folks in the path of these tornadoes and storm systems to remain on high alert,” she said. “Unfortunately, the day is not over yet. Y’all please stay safe and vigilant!”

Late Thursday afternoon into early evening, a second long-track, destructive tornado was on the ground for about 100 miles in north central Alabama before it lifted, only about 10 miles south of the first tornadic storm.

The tornado passed south of downtown Brent and Centreville, sparing the most heavily populated neighborhoods, but several structures were heavily damaged or destroyed on Belcher Road. Police were using the Sawmeal Restaurant as a checkpoint for southbound travelers, turning back the majority who did not live in the area. The tornado’s damage path appeared to be about a half mile wide as it passed south of the two communities, a vast expanse of downed trees and wires visible.

Late Thursday evening, a third long-track tornadic storm developed near Wadley, Ala., about 60 miles northwest of Montgomery, and raced east-northeast into north Georgia, south of Atlanta. A tornado emergency was issued for Newnan at 12:10 a.m. Friday, about 35 miles southwest of Atlanta, where the Weather Service wrote “a confirmed large and destructive tornado was confirmed” and radar showed large amounts of debris lofted into the air.

Video shows two Alabama drivers survive the extreme weather that tore through the state on March 25, killing five people. (Cesar Villasenor via Storyful)

An hour later, the city of Newnan tweeted: “The city experienced heavy damage in and around the historic downtown area due to tonight’s weather.”

One fatality was reported in Coweta County, home to Newnan, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Severe storms and flash flooding, somewhat less intense than those earlier in the day, continued Thursday night. The Weather Service had already received reports of 24 twisters, 59 instances of damaging winds, and 49 reports of large hail. The storms had cut power to over 35,000 customers in Alabama.

The tornadic storms occurred amid an intensifying storm system unleashing all modes of severe weather from Mississippi to Kentucky to western South Carolina.

“Tornadoes, large to very large hail, and damaging winds to hurricane force also are possible over a broad area from the central Gulf Coast to the Ohio Valley and southern Appalachians,” the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center warned.

Storm updates between Thursday afternoon and evening

7:00 p.m.: Risk of tornadoes and severe weather lower but not eliminated into the evening

As of 7 p.m., there were no tornado warnings in effect over Alabama but scattered storms continued, some severe. Several flash flood warnings were also in effect in the north central and northeast portion of the state, including in Birmingham.

Severe weather was also occurring outside Alabama with severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings in effect in northwest Georgia, and a line of severe thunderstorms was sweeping east through western Tennessee. A tornado warning was in effect about 25 miles north of the border with Mississippi and Alabama.

The coverage and intensity of storms, from Alabama and Georgia, into the Tennessee Valley and western Carolinas, should decrease some overnight as the activity gradually shifts eastward, but storms that produce pockets of damaging winds or even additional tornadoes are not out of the question.

The Storm Prediction Center said it would like issue a new tornado watch for the northern two-third of Alabama into the nighttime hours.

6:25 p.m.: Tornado warning discontinued for twister that tracked south of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham

The large tornado that was on the ground about 30 to 40 miles south of both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham lifted and the warning for the storm discontinued around 6:15 p.m.

6:00 p.m.: Tornado emergency extended into Columbiana and Wilsonville, about 30 miles southeast of Birmingham

A long-track, destructive tornado continues plowing east, south of Birmingham, where a tornado emergency, the most severe alert for twisters, is in effect until 6:30 p.m. The tornado continues to loft massive amounts of debris into the air, which is being detected by radar.

5:30 p.m.: Tornado emergency for areas about 40 miles south of Birmingham

The large tornado that passed south of Tuscaloosa is now roaring east into the zone about 40 miles south of Birmingham where a tornado emergency is in effect until 6 p.m. The emergency includes Montevallo, Wilton, and Calera, Ala. as the confirmed “destructive” tornado heads east at 50 mph. “This is a particularly dangerous situation,” the Weather Service warned.

Weather radar detected an enormous debris ball as the storm passed through Centreville, Ala, about 30 miles southeast of Tuscaloosa, indicating materials from the ground lofted high into the air and significant damage. Social media footage provides ground truth:

4:50 p.m.: Tornado emergency south of Tuscaloosa due to large twister, while new tornado warning issued for northeast Birmingham

The warning for the tornado south of Tuscaloosa, Ala. (see 4:30 p.m. update below) was upgraded to a tornado emergency, the most serious alert, due to a “confirmed large and destructive tornado” about 8 miles southwest of Mertz or 25 miles southeast of Tuscaloosa, shown in the image above. The warning is in effect until 5:30 p.m. and the storm is racing northeast at 60 mph and headed in the direction of the town of Brent.

Meanwhile, radar indicated a rotating thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado over northeastern Birmingham at 4:45 p.m., sprinting northeast at 55 mph. The warning is in effect until 6 p.m. as the radar-confirmed tornado potentially tracks just north of the twister earlier in the afternoon that passed near Pell City and Ohatchee.

4:30 p.m.: New tornado warning south of Tuscaloosa and flash flood warnings through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham

A line of thunderstorms, stretching from near Meridian, Miss. through north central Alabama to just northeast of Rome, Ga. (see 3:55 p.m. update) has generated several areas of rotation, prompting both tornado and flash flood warnings. Tornado warnings are in effect about 30 miles south of Tuscaloosa, Ala. until 5 p.m. and 15 miles east of Rome until 4:45 p.m. (5:45 p.m. local time).

The flash flood warnings cover both Birmingham and Tuscaloosa where 2 to 3 inches of rain have fallen and flooding is underway or expected to begin. The warnings are in effect until 6 p.m.

3:55 p.m.: Tornado warning in northwest Georgia from same rotating storm that tracked across Alabama

The same rotating storm that produced numerous tornado touch downs in north central Alabama crossed the border into northwest Georgia, prompting a tornado warning for the area around Rome and just to the south. The warning is in effect until 4:15 p.m. (or 5:15 p.m. local time).

3:45 p.m.: Birmingham ABC affiliate reporter: “multiple people pulled from their homes ... and hospitalized” southeast of the city

Stephen Quinn, a reporter for the Birmingham ABC television affiliate, tweeted that, according to the local fire department, “multiple people [were] pulled from their homes in Eagle Point subdivision and hospitalized” from the tornado that passed about 10 miles southeast of the city in the Eagle Point subdivision.

3:15 p.m.: Severe damage about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham

More photos of severe damage are emerging from the long-track tornadic storm which has cut across central Alabama. These are scenes from Ohatchee, which is about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham:

3:10 p.m.: Long-track tornado in Alabama nears border with Georgia

The same tornadic thunderstorm which caused damage southeast of Birmingham had charged into northeast Alabama, near the border with Georgia where a tornado warning is in effect until 4 p.m.

Dramatic video has emerged of the twister as it passed southeast of Birmingham near Eagle Point about 90 minutes ago:

2:35 p.m.: Significant tornado damage southeast of Birmingham

Social media photos show severe damage to homes in Eagle Point, which is near Meadowbrook, Ala. and about 10 miles southeast of Birmingham.

2:30 p.m.: Tornado warning for Meridian, Miss.

Radar indicates a possible tornado developing just west of Meridian, Miss., which is under a tornado warning until 3:30 p.m.

2:15 p.m.: Dangerous long-track tornado racing east of Birmingham; Meteorologist James Spann’s house damaged. Additional twister potential sets up into eastern Mississippi

Radar showed rotation associated with a confirmed large tornado about 20 miles east of Birmingham. The storm is sweeping northeast at 40 mph and is expected to pass very close to Pell City momentarily. A warning is in effect for the storm until 2:45 p.m.

The tornado has a history of producing damage as it tracked from just south of Tuscaloosa to just south and east of Birmingham. The twister damaged the home of renowned Birmingham meteorologist James Spann, the legendary broadcaster told viewers as he covered the storm.

Elsewhere, only one other tornado warning was active, about 30 miles west of Tuscaloosa, until 2:30 p.m. The tornado was radar-indicated with no confirmation as of yet.

Meanwhile, the Weather Service issued a special bulletin cautioning the environment in eastern Mississippi and northwest Alabama would be turning more favorable for tornadic storms through the afternoon.

1:40 p.m.: Tornado emergency southeast of Birmingham for “destructive” twister with history of producing damage

The Weather Service in Birmingham declared a “tornado emergency” for Shelby County, which is just to the south and southeast of the city, for a “confirmed large and destructive tornado,” heading northeast at 45 mph. Radar suggested the storm crossed Interstate 65 around 1:30 p.m. and was between Meadowbrook and Chelsea at 1:40 p.m. A tornado emergency is issued in the most urgent “particularly dangerous” situations which the Weather Service deems “life-threatening.”

Storm chaser footage provided confirmation of the large, dangerous tornado. See here and here.

1:05 p.m.: Tornado warning for south side of Birmingham

A confirmed tornado, about 30 miles southwest of Birmingham, was sweeping to the northeast at 40 mph and headed in the direction of Birmingham’s southern suburbs. A tornado warning is in effect until 2 p.m. for the general area. The Weather Service reported the storm had recently produced tree damage. The storm will likely across Interstate 65 south of Birmingham a little before 1:30 p.m.

12:30 p.m.: "[C]onfirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado” south of Tuscaloosa

At 12:30 p.m. the Weather Service issued a particularly dangerous situation tornado warning for “a confirmed large and very dangerous tornado” about 15 miles southeast of Tuscaloosa. The tornado formed near Moundville, which was also hit by a tornado during the outbreak last week. The storm was racing off to the northeast at 45 mph, in the general direction of Birmingham’s southern suburbs, which it may approach in about 45 minutes.

Noon: Particularly dangerous situation tornado watch issued

Just before noon, the Storm Prediction Center has issued a “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch for central and eastern Mississippi, western and northern Alabama, southern middle Tennessee, and northwest Georgia until 8 p.m. central time. The watch, reserved for the most serious severe weather situations, calls for “numerous tornadoes and several intense tornadoes,” widespread damaging wind gusts up to 80 mph, and widespread large hail.

“Multiple rounds of intense supercell thunderstorms are expected this afternoon and early evening, with the potential for long-track strong to violent tornadoes,” the Storm Prediction Center wrote.

The watch indicates a near certainty (95 percent chance) of at least one strong tornado that produces EF2 or higher damage on the 0 to 5 Enhanced Fujita scale.

Storm threat overview

The zone most threatened by dangerous storms includes Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., and Tupelo, Miss. It is surrounded by a larger zone, which includes Memphis, Nashville, and Jackson, Miss.., where the threat is rated at level 4 out of 5, and there is also a serious risk for severe weather.

It’s the first time in three decades that two top-tier high-risk notices have been issued in the month of March, the category marking the highest tier on a five-step scale. The Storm Prediction Center even took an unusual step in mentioning “potentially violent, long-track tornadoes,” the term “violent” corresponding to twisters of EF4 to EF5 strength, the most extreme levels on the scale.

The Storm Prediction Center’s language in its forecast discussion is even stronger compared with the high-risk event last week, signaling the significant potential for an extreme event.

While uncertainty exists as to how intense individual storms will become and what specific areas will be hit, an extremely serious outbreak of severe weather is anticipated.

More than 50 million Americans are threatened by severe weather, including about 9 million within the two zones of highest risk.

“Residents across the Deep South NEED to prepare for significant weather today, including the very real potential for violent, long track tornadoes,” wrote the Weather Service office in Jackson, Miss. “They need to have a plan in place NOW which includes having multiple ways to get warning information and [knowing] where to take shelter should a tornado warning be issued for their location.”

The sentiment was echoed by other Weather Service offices and broadcast meteorologists, the Weather Service in Birmingham writing “the synoptic pattern checks nearly all the boxes for a Deep South/Tennessee Valley outbreak.”

Their neighboring office in Huntsville described the air mass as “very unstable and downright volatile,” while the Storm Prediction Center called the environment for violent, tornadic storms as “uncommon, upper echelon.”

Storms will swarm during much of the day before winding down and exiting east late Thursday night.

Zone at risk

The greatest risk exists across portions of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, where the moderate and high-risk categories are drawn. That especially includes areas near and north of Interstate 22 and along and south of Interstate 40, where the most widespread severe weather can be expected.

State highways 45, 20 and 72 in Mississippi, as well as the Natchez Trace Parkway, Highways 43 and 72 in Alabama, and Highways 64, 43 and 412 in Tennessee are among the major routes that could be impacted by especially dangerous weather.

Although the most widespread severe storms will threaten central and northeast Mississippi, much of Middle Tennessee and northern and western Alabama, the threat of at least a few tornadoes extends as far north as Louisville or Indianapolis.

Hazards

Specific threats will depend on where one is in relation to the overarching storm system, but storms are expected to be both unusually widespread and intense across a large swath of area.

  • In the Levels 4 and 5 risk areas, scattered to widespread severe storms, including some rotating supercells, are likely. Tornadoes, hail up to the size of golf balls, and destructive winds up to 70 or 80 mph are possible. Any supercells that can get established could produce high-end tornadoes, including ones that may be strong to violent and long-track.
  • Tornadoes probably will not be readily visible because of heavy rain, fog and low overcast.
  • “Any relatively discrete supercells will be capable of multiple tornadoes, some long-tracked/strong to violent (EF2-5 possible) w/considerable destructive potential,” wrote the Storm Prediction Center.
  • Flash flooding is also possible across much of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, where sodden soils from ongoing rains and those dropped by heavy weather last week could be inundated by additional downpours from storms Thursday. Flash-flood watches are up for much of the region.

Farther south and north, severe thunderstorm activity may be a bit more scattered in nature, but some tornadoes, including a few significant ones, are possible in eastern Arkansas and southern Kentucky surrounding the moderate and high-risk areas.

The threat wanes into Louisiana, as well as north into the Ohio Valley, but an isolated tornado, as well as instances of wind, hail and localized flooding are still concerns.

The timing

Thursday morning and afternoon, a warm front was lifting north through Mississippi and Alabama, ushering in an unstable and dangerous air mass.

Severe thunderstorms will break out in multiple zones shortly after lunchtime — along the cold front near and east of the Mississippi River, and farther east across eastern Mississippi, northwest Alabama and Middle Tennessee.

Storms will increase in areal coverage and intensity into early evening while shifting northeastward. They’ll probably clear Mississippi by sunset and plow through Alabama and eastern Tennessee after dark while diminishing in intensity, although at least some isolated severe weather risk will remain.

Safety and action items

The “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch issued signaled a high-end threat and the possibility of intense tornadoes.

“DO NOT stay in a mobile home when a watch is issued. No Excuses!” tweeted Dan Satterfield, a meteorologist who spent years in Birmingham covering severe weather outbreaks.

A tornado watch means conditions are favorable for twisters to form, but not a guarantee. It’s a call to prepare. If a tornado warning is issued, that means a rotating storm has been detected or a tornado spotted on the ground, and that action should be taken immediately.

Average tornado warning lead time is around 10 minutes at best, meaning it’s vital to have a plan in place before you need it. That means being able to shelter in a basement, storm cellar or interior room, away from windows, on the lowest floor of a site-built location at a moment’s notice.

If you can’t do that in just three or four minutes, relocate to somewhere you can — high-risk days are when you want to be close to a shelter at all times.

“Know the location of the nearest shelter, or business that is open 24/7,” wrote James Spann, a veteran meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham known for walking Alabamians through scores of historic outbreaks. “Know how to get there quickly.”

He also recommended having multiple ways to receive storm warnings and not to rely on tornado sirens, which often cannot be heard indoors.

“In [your] safe places, have helmets for everybody, a portable air horn … first responders can hear that a mile a way … hard sole shoes [for] walking over tornado debris,” said Spann in a morning video posted to his Facebook page.

Spann also called for Alabamians to “be a hero” — to call or text others to make sure they’re aware of the severe weather threat.

The setup

Instigating the severe weather is a high-altitude weather disturbance that ejected east out of the southern Rockies early Wednesday after passing through the Four Corners region. It spawned a few tornadoes in Texas on Wednesday and is set to unleash vicious weather across the South.

It’s made up of cold air and counterclockwise spin at high altitudes nestled within a dip in the jet stream.

That chilly upper-level air will foster rising motion and widespread storms, while a change of wind speed and/or direction with height imparted by the jet stream will cause them to spin.

There’s also a “cap” in place a few thousand feet up — a layer of warm, dry desert air that will prevent air near the ground from rising most of the day. Then, as the lower atmosphere is heated, the cap will break allowing storms to explosively develop. That’s an ominous atmospheric signal of a violent weather day.

Storms are targeting a vulnerable zone

The South is an area known for systematic vulnerability to severe weather and tornadoes. It is even more at risk from high-end tornadoes than the traditional Great Plains “Tornado Alley,” with swifter-moving storms that cover more ground.

Housing type, which includes large numbers of mobile homes, and the structure of communities, coupled with population density, puts more people in harm’s way, while trees and thick vegetation, along with rain-wrapped storms, frequently make it impossible to see a tornado coming.

Winding and meandering road networks make it impossible to escape a tornado if you’re caught on the roadways, too.

That’s why meteorologists stress on days such as Thursday that it’s imperative to stay weather-aware, have a plan and know what to do.