Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Alabama on Sunday, after at least nine people died in tornadoes that destroyed homes and knocked out power to tens of thousands in south-eastern US states this week.
The president ordered federal aid to supplement regional recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe storms, winds and tornadoes on 12 January, a White House statement said.
At least five tornadoes touched down in central Alabama on Thursday, according to Jessica Laws, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS). Biden’s action made federal funding available in the counties of Autauga and Dallas.
In rural Autauga county, an engine mechanic described how he took refuge in a shipping container as a tornado smashed his shop and killed two of his neighbors.
Harrowing stories told by David Hollon and other survivors emerged as residents combed through wreckage. In Autauga county, at least seven people died.
When Hollon and fellow workers saw a massive tornado churning toward them, they knew they needed to shelter immediately.
Hollon said they ran into a metal shipping container near the back of his garage because the container was anchored to the floor with concrete. Once inside, Hollon began frantically dialing his neighbor. But as he heard the garage being ripped apart by the storm, the call kept going to voicemail.
The storm passed and Hollon and the other workers emerged, only to find the body of the neighbor in the street, he said. Another neighbor also died, a family member said.
“I guess we did a lot better than most. We got damage, but we’re still here,” Hollon, 52, said on Saturday as he walked amid the remains of his garage, stepping through a field littered with battered cars, shattered glass, snapped tree branches, splintered wood and other debris.
Leighea Johnson, a 54-year-old cafeteria worker who also lives in Autauga county, stood among the remains of her trailer home. She pointed to a tall pile of rubble she identified as her bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. A swing set in her backyard was across the street, mangled among some trees. Her outdoor trampoline was wrapped around another set of trees in a neighbor’s front yard.
“The trailer should be here, and now it’s not,” Johnson said. “And it is all over the place now.”
The storm brought powerful twisters and winds to Alabama and Georgia, uprooting trees, sending mobile homes airborne, derailing a freight train, flipping cars, cracking utility poles and downing power lines, leaving thousands without electricity. Suspected tornado damage was reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and 14 counties in Georgia, according to the NWS.
Autauga county officials said the tornado had winds of at least 136mph and leveled damage consistent with an EF3, two steps below the most powerful category. County authorities said at least a dozen people were hospitalized and about 40 homes were destroyed or seriously damaged, including mobile homes launched into the air.
Residents described how people rushed into shelters, bathtubs and sheds as the winds bore down. In one case, a search crew found five people trapped but unharmed inside a storm shelter after a wall from a nearby house fell onto it.
Downtown Selma sustained severe damage but no deaths were reported.
The Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, said the damage was felt across his state. Some of the worst reports emerged from Troup county near the Alabama line, where more than 100 homes were hit.
Kemp said a state transportation worker was killed while responding to storm damage. A five-year-old child who was riding in a vehicle was killed by a falling tree in Butts county. At least 12 people were treated at a hospital in Spalding county, south of Atlanta, where the NWS confirmed at least two tornadoes struck.
Johnson, the cafeteria worker in Autauga county, said she was at work when she learned the storm would pass directly over her home. She quickly warned her daughter, who was with her two-year-old grandson at home.
“I called my daughter and said, ‘You do not have time to get out, you’ve got to get somewhere now,’” Johnson said. “And she said, ‘I’m getting in the tub. If the house is messed up I’ll be in the tub area.’”
The call dropped. Johnson kept calling back. When she finally reconnected, her daughter said: “The house is gone, the house is gone.”
Her daughter and grandson had cuts and bruises but were otherwise fine, Johnson said.
“I brought her home and tried not to let go of her after that,” Johnson said. “I lost a lot of things materialistically and I don’t have insurance but I don’t even care, because my child is all right. That’s really all that matters to me.”