BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – A powerful winter storm raked the Deep South on Thursday with high winds, rain and floods that killed two people and injured several more across a dozen states. Rescue crews repeatedly pulled people from cars that got stuck in high water, but couldn’t reach a person whose vehicle disappeared into a rain-swollen creek.
The storm front destroyed mobile homes in Mississippi and Alabama, caused mudslides in Tennessee and Kentucky and flooded communities that shoulder waterways across the Appalachian region. In Florida, high winds prompted the closure of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Afternoon tornado watches were in effect for a huge swath of the Southeast, from the Florida Panhandle up through North Carolina.
In Harlan County, Kentucky, two mobile homes floated away as dozens of families were evacuated amid rising water, authorities said.
â€œIts a very bad situation that continues to worsen by the hour,â€ said Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosley. He said about 20 people were sheltering in the Harlan Baptist Church, after being taken from their homes.
The rain kept falling over a path of splintered trees and sagging power lines that stretched from Louisiana into Virginia. School districts cancelled classes in state after state as the weather rolled through.
One person was killed and another was injured as high winds destroyed two mobile homes near the town of Demopolis, Alabama, the Storm Prediction Center reported.
The victim, Anita Rembert, was in one of the homes with her husband, her child and two grandchildren, said Kevin McKinney, emergency management director for Marengo County. The man was injured but the children were OK, he said.
The winds left roadsides in that area strewn with pieces of plywood and insulation, broken trees and twisted metal. The National Weather Service was checking the site for signs of a tornado.
A driver died in South Carolina when a tree fell on an SUV near the town of Fort Mill, authorities said. The driver was the only person in the vehicle, and no other cars were involved, Highway Patrol Master Trooper Gary Miller said. The York County Coroner’s Office has not released the driver’s name.
In Pickens, Mississippi, the ceiling caved in and furniture flew around 64-year-old Emma Carter’s mobile home, but she considers herself lucky after surviving another apparent tornado. A weather service crew was headed there as well to study the damage.
Carter, her two daughters and two grandsons were inside the home when the strongest winds hit Wednesday afternoon. Her grandson, DeMarkus Sly, 19, told everyone to lie flat and cover their heads as aluminum sheeting from nearby structures slammed into their home.
â€œWe are blessed that nobody got hurt, that nobody got killed,â€ Carter said.
Flooding, meanwhile, forced rescuers to suspend their search for a vehicle that disappeared with a person inside it in north Alabama’s Buck’s Pocket State Park.
â€œAs the car started shifting because of the water we noticed what appeared to be an arm reaching out,â€ witness Kirkland Follis, who called 911, told WHNT-TV. Eight agencies responded, but the vehicle quickly disappeared Wednesday and the water was too dangerous for divers to search, the station reported.
Authorities in many places pleaded with motorists to avoid driving where they can’t see the pavement.
Tree limbs and fences were toppled when a confirmed tornado hit the Birmingham suburb of Helena, officials said, and some roads and parking lots were covered by floodwaters. Downtown streets also flooded near the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. A yellow taxi was abandoned in high water early Thursday on an interstate ramp in Birmingham.
Anyone who lives near rivers and lakes in the Tennessee Valley should prepare for rapidly changing water levels, said James Everett, senior manager of the TVA’s river forecast center in Knoxville, Tennessee. He said the TVA is managing water levels behind 49 dams to avert major flooding, but with half a foot of rain falling already and more expected next week, the agency may have to release water downstream.
In Kentucky, Harlan, Bell and Knox counties declared states of emergency. Bell Judge-Executive Albey Brock said the heavy rains washed out roads and led to rock slides and water rescues.
In Georgia, a tree crashed onto the interstate in Dunwoody, north of Atlanta, crunching a car but causing no serious injuries, authorities said. Huge trees toppled and snapped in the state’s northwestern Gordon County, smashing a home and blowing roofs off outbuildings.
Students were told to shelter in place while tornado warnings were in effect in the Atlanta suburbs and at the University of Georgia in Athens. Children in the Lawrenceville area huddled in school hallways as the weather moved through.
In southern West Virginia, residents at a nursing home were asked to remain inside after a road leading directly into the facility buckled during heavy rains.
The airport in North Carolinaâ€™s largest city evacuated a control tower and advised people to shelter in place because of a tornado warning. Charlotte-Douglas International Airport later tweeted that an inspection of its airfield showed no damage. More than 390 flights into and out of the airport were canceled Thursday.
More than 172,000 homes and businesses were without power across the South, according to poweroutage.us, and the rain was forecast to continue into Friday across much of the region.
Associated Press staffers Rogelio Solis in Pickens, Mississippi; Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C.; Bobby Calvan in Tallahassee, Fla.; Jeff Martin and Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta; Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tenn.; Becky Yonker in Louisville, Ky.; John Raby in Charleston, W.Va.; Kevin McGill in New Orleans; and Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, N.C.; contributed to this report.