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At least 7 dead after storms and tornado ripped through Alabama and Georgia

A local business was badly damaged by a tornado that passed through Selma, Ala., on Thursday. (Butch Dill/AP)
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Storms killed at least seven people in Alabama and Georgia on Thursday, sending a tornado that ripped through buildings, felled trees and left hundreds of thousands without power.

The tornado in Alabama flipped mobile homes, tore away roofs and downed power lines. It pushed people into emergency shelters and knocked out cell towers in Selma, leaving them running on backup battery as workers rushed repairs.

“We have multiple dead,” Autauga County Coroner Buster Barber told The Washington Post. Autauga was one of six counties where Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) declared a state of emergency, along with Chambers, Coosa, Elmore, Tallapoosa and Dallas, which is home to Selma.

The severe weather was triggered by a strong cold front sweeping across the eastern United States while warm, humid air surged ahead of it. Dozens of tornadoes were reported in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky. Parts of Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina also saw tornado watches.

The extreme weather came on the heels of storms last week that produced 13 tornadoes in Central Alabama and more across Georgia and South Carolina.

Storms killed at least 8 people in Alabama and Georgia on Jan. 12 as severe weather tore across the region. (Video: Storyful)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) declared a state of emergency, tweeting that tornadoes were confirmed or observed in six counties and possibly near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Butts County coroner Lacey Prue confirmed the death of a 5-year-old boy on Thursday that was linked to a possible tornado near Jackson.

In Alabama, Ivey confirmed the six deaths.

“We are far too familiar with devastating weather, but our people are resilient,” Ivey said on Twitter. “We will get through it and be stronger for it.”

The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center received reports of 45 tornadoes on Thursday, 232 instances of damaging winds and 24 reports of large hail, from Mississippi to North Carolina and Florida to Ohio.

Dallas County saw widespread damage, officials reported. In Autauga County, Barber said, emergency workers were still surveying the area. The storm also caused the front end of a fire department to collapse, trapping emergency vehicles.

In Selma, another hard-hit area, some people had “significant injuries,” and public housing “took some major hits,” Mayor James Perkins Jr. said. No deaths had been reported in the city.

In evening darkness, wearing jackets and sweatshirts, Perkins and the city’s council huddled for an emergency meeting. Noting that some members weren’t present because their homes had sustained major damage, the council voted aloud to allot $2 million for disaster response.

Residents were asked to conserve water amid power outages. The Red Cross opened a shelter at a high school, and local leaders were organizing food donation for Friday, Perkins said at the meeting, a video of which was posted on the City of Selma’s Facebook page.

“I am just convinced that Selma, we are a resilient people and that God is still favoring us,” Perkins said.

The storm carved a path of at least 200 miles, leaving damage that meteorologists said would take “many days” for National Weather Service teams to assess. The service’s Birmingham office said in social media posts that it had “received a lot of devastating reports of damage” and urged residents to avoid tornado-hit areas.

“There’s a lot of ground & damage to cover,” the office tweeted Thursday evening.

As the twister approached Selma on Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service office in Birmingham issued a warning for a “a large and extremely dangerous tornado.”

The tornado probably remained on the ground for over 60 miles as it barreled into western Georgia. The Weather Service issued dire warnings, including tornado emergency warnings — the most extreme alert — as the twister threatened highly populated areas.

The tornado reached Griffin, Ga., about 30 to 40 miles south of Atlanta, at 4:35 p.m. The National Weather Service reported major structural damage to a shopping center. Damage was also reported in LaGrange, about 50 miles southwest.

By 5 p.m., the tornado-producing storm was about 35 miles southeast of Atlanta, near Stewart, Ga., racing northeast at 55 mph. The rotation in the storm appeared to have weakened some.

In Butts County, about 45 miles southeast of Atlanta, a 5-year-old boy was killed after a pine tree fell on a car during a possible tornado, the county coroner said. The child was pronounced dead at the scene and the cause of death is not yet known. Another passenger, whose relation to the child was not immediately clear, is in critical condition at a hospital.

The road remains blocked, and most other roads in the county remain impassable, the coroner said.

The University of Georgia’s campus in Griffin, about 30 miles south of metro Atlanta, tweeted that it would close the campus because of storm-damaged trees. The tweet included pictures that showed snapped trees, road signs bent to the ground and the doors blown off one building.

Nearly 200,000 customers were without power across the South at one point early Thursday evening, with the majority in Georgia, according to utility tracker In metro Atlanta, one electrical company reported 28,000 customers experiencing outages, and another reported 40,000 customers without power as of 7:30 p.m.

As power began to be restored, municipal leaders made plans, and locals took stock of the damage.

“We’re still digging out of the rubble,” said Barber in Autauga County, “but hopefully tomorrow will be a brighter day.”