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Tenth body found after tornadoes tore through Alabama, Georgia

Altharis Threatt carries things out of her daughter-in-law's tornado-ravaged home in Mount Vernon, Ala., on Thursday. Her daughter was hospitalized, Threatt said. (Dan Anderson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

At least 10 people died after violent storms dropped a tornado in the Southeast on Thursday, dealing tremendous damage, triggering states of emergency in Alabama and Georgia, killing a state employee responding to the storm and wrecking parts of Selma, Ala., a town famous for its role in the civil rights movement.

Most of the fatalities in Alabama were focused in Autauga County, where the death toll rose to seven adults Friday morning, five of whom were killed sheltering inside mobile homes, Autauga County coroner Buster Barber told The Washington Post. Rescuers sifted through rubble until late Friday afternoon, using cadaver dogs and drones before determining there was no more evidence that anyone else perished.

“The pile of debris that used to be my home, if you didn’t see the furniture in it you’d think it’d be a garbage dump,” said Barber, who was working in Old Kingston, a residential neighborhood in Autauga. “Some of the people that died were in their homes, mobile homes at that. The tornado picked the homes up, destroyed 'em, and moved 'em as much as 200 feet from where they were tied down.”

On Jan. 14, reporter Natalie B. Compton traveled with Selma firefighters to check on people and their homes in the aftermath of violent storms. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

A woman in Orrville, Ala., died from what appeared to be carbon monoxide poisoning after the tornado cut electricity in her home, which used a gas-powered generator as a back up, Dallas County coroner Alan Dailey said. She was confirmed dead just before 4 p.m. Friday, Daily added.

In Butts County, Ga., a 5-year-old boy was killed after a pine tree fell onto a car, the coroner there said. Another passenger in the vehicle was in critical condition Friday. The other death in the state was a Georgia Department of Transportation employee who was responding to storm damage, officials said at a news conference Friday.

The winter blitz of tornadoes struck some Georgians as odd, said J. Michael Brewer, deputy manager of Butts County. The wind was so strong, he said, a fallen tree axed a brick home into halves.

“There are more bad storms in general than I remember there being when I was younger,” he added. “Tornadoes are unpredictable, but January is very unusual for this kind of weather.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) declared a state of emergency in six counties where the tornado caused the most damage: Autauga, Chambers, Coosa, Dallas, Elmore and Tallapoosa. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) declared a state of emergency for the entire state in response to the extreme weather.

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

There were no reports of deaths in hard-hit Selma, but Mayor James Perkins called the damage “tremendous.”

“We’re going to be without power in this area for a long time because the distribution system is shot,” Perkins said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “Many of the power poles are gone, the lines are down.”

Much of the damage was in the east and west parts of the town famous for its civil rights legacy.

“It was this town that brought us the Voting Rights Act,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) said at the news conference alongside Perkins. “And I know it is this town that will also become a shining example of what to do when you have disaster.”

Early Friday morning, Elizabeth Alexander, who lives in a community just outside Selma, set up a card table in front of a closed church on Franklin Street in Selma, its steeple topped with a white cross broken and bent from the storm like many of the trees and roofs in the neighborhood.

Alexander served hot beef stew from a crock pot plugged into a dangling power strip. There were piles of cleansing wipes, Ritz Crackers, cans of tuna, chili and other shelf-stable meals, plus cases of water bottles.

“People are without houses, people are without clothes, shoes, vehicles. You see the need, meet the need,” Alexander said. “My sister saw the tornado over her house, she was without power all night … My co-worker — trees fell into her house and her vehicle.”

Alexander’s cousin, Rose Sanders, lives just across the street from Alexander’s table in one of the many impacted houses. She was in her home when the tornado ripped through.

“It was like a train,” Sanders said. “It happened in two minutes.” '

Many Selma residents were still picking through their wrecked homes on Friday afternoon. Barbara Jean Woods, 65, had family coming and going from her home near downtown Salem carrying what furniture and belongings they could salvage. They stepped over shards of glass in the living room, across her destroyed porch and over felled power lines to load couches, bags of clothes and picture frames into pickup trucks and a massive U-Haul.

Just three years after moving into the place, Woods was moving out — at least for the time being. The tornado made her home unlivable, but at least she was alive.

When Woods saw the tornado warning on the news, she followed her son’s instructions and ran to the bathroom to shelter in the tub, bringing some couch cushions with her to cover her head. Then, “WHAM! The whole house came up with me,” she said. “I was so scared, but I prayed to the Lord and he put me back down.”

Woods, a Selma native, believes she stayed in the tub for 30 minutes, and after sensing it was safe to come out, ran outside in the rain to find help.

Two familiar neighbors drove them to their house, where Woods’s daughter later picked her up. “I was lucky,” said Woods, a mother of four, grandmother of nine, and great-grandmother of five. “He wasn’t ready to let me go … God could have taken me, but I’m blessed, baby.”

Schools across Dallas County, which includes Selma, were shuttered Friday as engineers inspected buildings for structural damage, said Leroy Miles, vice president of the county’s school board.

Hundreds of students and teachers couldn’t have made it to their classrooms anyway, he added, because debris clogged the roads.

“It’s tough for buses to pick up kids and carry them safely,” he said. “We’re having trouble assessing the extent of the damage because it’s hard to get anywhere at the moment.”

Photos: The scene after a tornado tore through central Alabama

His daughter, a fourth-grade teacher, left her Selma home to stay with him after losing power. “She had roof leaks, lots of water,” he said. “Trees, power lines, transformers in her yard.”

He said his family plans to clean up her house, then join community efforts in town when the roads reopen.

In Alexander City, a trooper with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Marine Patrol Division was injured after a falling tree smashed his patrol car, denting its rear.

On Thursday, as many as 200,000 Southern customers reported power outages. By Friday afternoon, 15,000 customers in Alabama were without electricity, according to poweroutage.us, mostly along the storm’s path across the center of the state. In Georgia, about 20,000 were reporting outages.

The rotating thunderstorm or supercell that produced the deadly tornado in Autauga County formed in Louisiana on Thursday morning before tracking 500 miles into eastern Georgia. The storm produced tornadoes along its path and lofted debris as high as 20,000 feet. Some tornado debris was tossed more than 10 miles from the storm’s path.

Tornadoes were reported from Lawrence County in Alabama’s north to Mobile County on its Gulf Coast, according to NOAA, and the main line of those reports crossed from Mississippi through the center of the state, and into Georgia.

As the storm tore across east-central Alabama, the National Weather Service office in Birmingham declared a tornado emergency on multiple occasions — its most dire alert, used only when confirmed large and dangerous tornadoes threaten population centers.

The National Weather Service office in Birmingham found that the tornado that hit Selma rated at least EF2 on the 0 to 5 scale for intensity. The one that tore through the Kingston community in Autauga County was EF3 or higher.

“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 wrote in its preliminary storm survey report released Friday afternoon.

Thursday’s storms erupted as a strong cold front sweeping across the South clashed with warm, humid air surging north from the Gulf of Mexico.

Water temperatures in the steadily warming gulf were more than 5 degrees above average — in the mid-70s — adding fuel to the storms.

The National Weather Service received nearly three dozen reports of tornadoes concentrated in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky. It also logged nearly 200 reports of damaging winds and hail from Mississippi to the Carolinas and as far north as southern Ohio.

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.

Tornadoes are not uncommon in the South during the winter months; in Alabama, they’re most common between late fall and late spring. However, in recent years, meteorologists have noticed an uptick in tornado outbreaks during the colder months, which could have ties to human-caused climate change.

The Weather Service has issued 696 severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings this year, the most recorded this early in January.

Compton reported from Selma, Ala.; Salcedo, Samenow, Paquette and Rosenzweig-Ziff reported from Washington. Kelsey Ables, Amudalat Ajasa, Ben Brasch, Scott Dance and Justine McDaniel contributed to this report, which is developing and will be updated.

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