Tornado in Alabama adds to Christmas storm woes for the South

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A Christmastime wave of severe weather continued Friday as a tornado touched down in Jefferson County, Alabama, including through the southwest portion of Birmingham, the state's largest city.

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Witnesses spotted the funnel outside the city about 5 p.m. An hour later, the National Weather Service confirmed that first responders were on the scene along Jefferson Avenue in a working class neighbourhood about eight miles from downtown Birmingham.

Lt. Sean Edwards, a Birmingham police spokesman, said trees are down and people were trapped inside damaged houses but there were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths.

"Details are still sketchy," said Jason Holmes, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Weather radar Friday evening showed an intense system along the Interstate 20/59 corridor west of Birmingham, with the storm moving eastward. Flooding was reported in counties throughout the region, as heavy rain continued to fall.

The Alabama tornado is the latest development in an ongoing series of storms that has hammered the South during Christmas week.

Elsewhere in the region, where the weather had calmed, dozens of people faced Christmas having lost their homes and possessions. But many they said they were thankful to see another Christmas.

Tony Goodwin ducked into a storm shelter with seven others as a storm pounded Tennessee and other states in the southeastern U.S. He emerged to find his house in Linden had been knocked off its foundation and hurled down a hill by high winds.

Goodwin's neighbours weren't so fortunate. Two people in one home were killed.

"It makes you thankful to be alive with your family," he said.

Unseasonably warm weather on Wednesday helped spawn torrential rain and deadly tornadoes that left at least 14 people and left dozens of families homeless by Christmas Eve.

Parts of Mississippi remained under a flood warning Friday. Weather forecasters from the National Weather Service warned that a strong storm crossing the central part of the state could produce hail and winds of more than 40 mph. The storm was bringing with it the risk of falling trees, downed power lines and flash flooding, officials said.

But that didn't stop some from spending their Christmas giving rather than receiving.

Nicholas Garbacz, disaster program manager for the American Red Cross of North Mississippi, said members of the Marine Corps brought donated toys to a centre in Holly Springs for children whose families were hit hard by the storms. Two of the seven people killed in Mississippi were from the Holly Springs area.

Dozens of children and their families showed up Friday morning to pick up a toy or other items they might need to recover from the storm, Garbacz said.

More severe weather was also in store for parts of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee that were again being pounded with rain. Residents were warned to brace for flash flooding and possible tornadoes.

Among the dead were seven people from Mississippi, including a 7-year-old boy who perished while riding in a car that was swept up and tossed by storm winds.

Six people were killed in Tennessee, including three who were found in a car submerged in a creek, according to the Columbia Police Department. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said the victims were a 19-year-old female and two 22-year-old males.

One person died in Arkansas, and dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed.

As the rain continued to fall, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Friday issued an emergency declaration that covers any part of the state experiencing flash flooding. Officials in southeast Alabama are particularly concerned, as Pea River is approaching record-levels near the town of Elba, which has a history of severe flooding.

Dozens of people were injured in earlier storms, some seriously, said Greg Flynn, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Search teams combed damaged homes and businesses for people still missing, a hunt made complicated because so many had left for the holidays.

"Until they know for sure where those folks are, they're going to keep looking, because we've had in some cases houses levelled, and they're just not there anymore," Flynn said.

In Benton County, Mississippi, relatives helped Daisy and Charles Johnson clean up after the storm flattened their house. They carried some of the couple's belongings past a Santa Clause figure on a table.

Daisy Johnson, 68, said she and her husband rushed along with other relatives to their storm shelter across the street after they heard a tornado was headed their way.

"We looked straight west of us, and there it was. It was yellow and it was roaring, lightning just continually, and it was making a terrible noise," she said. "I never want to hear that again for as long as I live."

Mona Ables, 43, was driving home when the storm hit. She abandoned her car, ran to a house and banged on a window, seeking shelter.

The startled man inside couldn't open the door, Ables said. She huddled next to the house as another stranger pulled up, also looking for shelter.

"He and I just huddled together and saw trees fly past us, and a shipping container flip over," Ables said. "And as the debris started hitting us, he just covered me, and within a minute it was all over and there was destruction all around us and we were fine."

Peak tornado season in the South is in the spring, but such storms can happen at any time. Exactly a year ago, tornadoes hit Mississippi, killing five people and injuring dozens.

Barbara Perkins was told Thursday by an insurance agent that her storm-damaged home in Falkner, Mississippi, was a complete loss. But Perkins -- who survived the storm hunkered down inside a closet with her husband -- said she was happy just to be alive. Two neighbours had died in the storm that swept across the southeastern U.S. earlier this week.

"You kind of stop and realize what Christmas is all about," Perkins said.

AP writers contributing to this report were Erik Schelzig from Linden, Tennessee; Phillip Lucas from Falkner, Mississippi; Jay Reeves in Atlanta; Lucas Johnson in Nashville; and Chevel Johnson in New Orleans.


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