SELMA, Ala. - Severe storms that spawned tornadoes left behind trails of destruction across the South and were blamed for at least nine deaths on Thursday.
Storm damage was reported in nine states, with Alabama appearing to be the hardest hit during the severe weather outbreak.
The dangerous storms prompted the National Weather Service to issue a rare Tornado Emergency for parts of Alabama after forecasters said a large and destructive tornado was located outside of Montgomery.
"You are in a life-threatening situation," the NWS said during the Tornado Emergency. "Flying debris may be deadly to those caught without shelter. Mobile homes will be destroyed. Considerable damage to homes, businesses and vehicles is likely and complete destruction is possible."
Throughout the severe weather outbreak, National Weather Service offices across the region issued 221 Severe Thunderstorm warnings, 68 Tornado warnings and three Tornado emergencies, which are saved for the most severe situations, according to the FOX Forecast Center.
Deadly tornadoes strike Alabama
All Tornado warnings and emergencies have expired, but residents are only starting to see the scope of the damage left behind by the twisters.
A series of supercells moved across the state Thursday afternoon, which produced several confirmed tornadoes.
One of the hardest-hit communities was Autauga County, outside the capital city of Montgomery.
National Weather Service survey teams believe the damage in Autauga County was caused by at least an EF-3 tornado and damages in Winston County were caused by an EF-2 tornado.
However, damage assessments are ongoing.
"There is still no confirmation as of yet if the path through Dallas and Autauga was one continuous path, or two separate, but damage has been surveyed in both counties," the NWS Birmingham said in a tweet.
The local sheriff's department confirmed at least seven deaths, with search and rescue operations ongoing.
Officials said dozens of homes were either damaged or destroyed during the outbreak.
Lachandra Sturdivant witnessed one of the tornadoes from a coffee shop in Selma, Alabama.
"We could hear the train – the tornado sounds like a train just roaring through," she told FOX Weather. "It just started ripping trees, roofs off buildings, stuff was just everywhere."
Sturdivant said she was waiting in her car to check on loved ones as roads were blocked in parts of central Alabama.
"It’s horrible through here," she said. "The power’s off, they’re trying to cut trees out of the roads to open a way for people to get around."
The office of Selma, Alabama, Mayor James Perkins, Jr., said the city received significant damage from the tornado.
"Citizens, please refrain from traveling the roadways and stay away from downed power lines," the office said in a Facebook post. "City crews will be out as soon as practical to clean up."
City council held an emergency meeting Thursday and said there were several injuries but no fatalities.
The NWS Birmingham's preliminary storm survey found that the Selma tornado was at least an EF-2.
Outside the downtown region, Crosspoint Christian Church was in the crosshairs of the tornado. Video taken by a worker showed the destruction of buildings where dozens of children were attending daycare.
Miraculously, only one minor injury was reported among staff and students and all were safely evacuated to a nearby church by firefighters.
"I'm so thankful we made it out ok, but my mind is messed up," Amanda McCloud stated.
Farther north, significant damage was reported in Decatur, Alabama, where images showed buildings and other structures that had been damaged after a severe storm moved across the area.
"So far, we’ve only had one report of an injury, and I don’t know the status of that individual," said Hilary Granbois, of the Morgan County Emergency Management Agency in Alabama. "As of right now, the preliminary report of a lot of downed power lines. We have some overturned 18-wheelers."
Additional damage has been reported at boat ramps and marinas, according to Granbois, and damage reports are slowly starting to trickle in.
Granbois said she would be heading out with members of the NWS to assess the damage.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey was briefed on the severe weather and commented on the tragic deaths.
"I am sad to have learned that six Alabamians were lost to the storms that ravaged across our state. My prayers are with their loved ones and communities. We are far too familiar with devastating weather, but our people are resilient. We will get through it and be stronger for it," Ivey said in a statement.
Kentucky wakes up to early-morning tornadoes
The NWS office in Louisville, Kentucky, has already confirmed at least two tornadoes struck the Blue Grass State on Thursday.
The strongest of the twisters was given a preliminary rating of an EF-1 as NWS meteorologists surveyed damage in Mercer County, Kentucky. The tornado is believed to have had winds of 100 mph as it damaged power lines and trees.
Another EF-1 tornado, with winds of around 90 mph, was also confirmed in Boyle County.
In addition to the tornadoes, there were several reports of wind damage and large hail.
The severe storm pushed through Daniels, Kentucky, where witnesses observed roof damage to Ben Johnson Elementary.
Brad Cox, emergency management director of Mercer County, said there was plenty of damage but no injuries from the storm.
"We had quite a bit of substantial damage out in our county area. We're a rural county, and we had two houses that got hit pretty hard and several barns that got hit," said Cox. "We also had a couple of roofs that got damaged, and one was a daycare. We were very fortunate that children were able to take shelter inside the main building."
Severe storms turn deadly in Georgia during the late afternoon
As severe thunderstorms entered the Peach State, enough instability was around to cause several cells to rotate and produce likely tornadoes. The storms were responsible for at least 125,000 customers to lose power, and they left behind plenty of damage.
In Butts County, Georgia, about an hour south of Atlanta, a 5-year-old child was killed during the severe weather Thursday afternoon after a tree fell on the vehicle in which he was riding, county officials confirmed.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp confirmed a second death in the state on Friday after a state employee was killed while assessing the storm damage.
Farther north, Cobb Fire and Emergency Services crews said they spent the afternoon surveying damage, and several roadways were closed in the Atlanta metro area due to fallen trees.
Video from Austell, Georgia, showed at least one wall of a warehouse that collapsed during the high winds.
Cobb County officials did not say whether there were any injuries associated with the collapse.
The storms also impacted country's busiest airport, and FOX Weather's Robert Ray was in the right place to observe the storm's impacts.
"I'm actually sitting on a Delta Air Lines plane coming in from San Francisco. We landed at 3:50 p.m. right when that Tornado warning occurred right when that tornado was spotted near the airport. The pilot came on and said, ‘Look folks, we are either the last plane or there was a plane right before us to land.’ We sat on the tarmac for a good 25 to 30 minutes, as the gates were evacuated, according to the pilot, because of this system that came in," said Ray.
The Federal Aviation Administration reported that a ground stop was put in place at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and planes were temporarily prohibited from landing during the height of the storm.
After the storms rolled through, airlines reported significant delays that averaged at least half an hour.
Less than an hour south of Atlanta, the Griffin Fire Department reported several structures were damaged by a confirmed tornado that moved through Spalding County.
After conducting a survey of the storm damage, the NWS office in Atlanta confirmed two separate tornadoes, rating them an EF-3 and EF-2 in Spalding County.
Video showed extensive damage to a Hobby Lobby store in Griffin.
After the storms cleared the Atlanta metro region, Kemp declared a State of Emergency for at least a half-dozen counties and said the state was in an "all-hands-on-deck approach" to help the affected communities.
FOX Weather’s Will Nunley is in the hard-hit area of Griffin, Georgia, and said travel is difficult.
"We understand, in the immediate vicinity of where we are tonight, that there is an apartment complex where they are conducting search and rescue, and there may have been entrapments in that building," said Nunley.
The University of Georgia Griffin campus suffered significant damage to many large trees and several buildings. The campus remained closed on Friday because of the destruction.
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