Christmas tornado touches down in Alabama as storms plague U.S. South

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Severe weather has plagued the southern U.S. during Christmas week, and the misery continued as a tornado touched down in north-central Alabama on Christmas Day.

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Unseasonably warm weather starting Wednesday helped spawn torrential rain and deadly storms that left at least 15 people in three states dead and dozens of families homeless by Christmas Eve.

The tornado that touched down in Alabama on Friday was spotted by witnesses outside the city about 5 p.m. An hour later the National Weather service confirmed that first responders were on the scene in a working class neighbourhood less than 10 miles from downtown Birmingham.

Lt. Sean Edwards, a Birmingham police spokesman, said trees were down and people were trapped inside damaged houses. Several people were taken to hospitals for treatment of minor injuries. It wasn't clear if anyone was killed.

Ruthie Green went door-to-door in a coat and a bicycle helmet to check on neighbours after the storm and swept debris from her front porch as more emergency responders arrived in the neighbourhood.

"I been listening to the news all day so I was kind of preparing," Green said. When the tornado warning came up on her iPad, Green said she ran to a closet.

"Then I heard the big roaring, it didn't last more than three minutes," Green said. "I just laid down and just kept praying."

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 be alive.

Among the dead from several days of rough weather were eight people from Mississippi, including a 7-year-old boy who died while riding in a car that was swept up and tossed by storm winds.

Six people were killed in Tennessee, including three 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 woman and two 22-year-old men.

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

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

Peak tornado season in the South is in the spring, but storms can happen 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 hunkered down inside a closet with her husband -- said she was happy just to be alive. Two neighbours had died in the storm.

"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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