A spate of violent, fast-moving tornadoes continued to wreak havoc across the Deep South on Sunday, killing at least 14 people in south Georgia and raising the weekend’s severe-weather death toll to 18.
Some of the most extensive damage came Sunday afternoon, when a large twister with winds of 60 mph tore across Albany, Ga., killing at least three people and mangling homes across suburban neighborhoods.
"There are no words to tell you how bad this is,” Ron Rowe, Dougherty County Emergency Management Agency director, said at a news conference in Albany, a city of just more than 75,000 people about 170 miles south of Atlanta. “It's just tornadoes and pure destruction.”
As Rowe hunkered in a safe room of an emergency operations center with Albany’s police chief and other emergency officials, they heard trees ripped apart and hurled into buildings. After 15 minutes, when the storm passed, they made their way out and found neighborhoods that had been destroyed.
“We saw mattresses, we saw couches,” Rowe said. “You name it. It was all out there in a pile strewn across acres of land.”
An elementary school, an airport and the sprawling Marine Corps Logistics Base were hit, Rowe said. So much debris blocked roads that fire crews had to navigate communities on foot.
“It ripped through here bad,” Chris Cohilas, chairman of the Dougherty County Commission, said on a Facebook live feed Sunday afternoon as he walked along a two-lane road past fallen trees and upturned cars. “We’ve got people that are hurt …. It looks like a nuclear bomb went off.”
In the distance, a woman screamed. “What happened?” Cohilas asked a passerby.
“She’s missing one of her kids,” the man responded.
Earlier Sunday, just before 3 a.m., a single long-track tornado, or a couple of smaller tornadoes, struck the Georgia-Florida line, hurtling northeast for about 80 miles, said Mark Wool, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Tallahassee, Fla., office.
Seven were killed in Cook County, Ga., where a tornado ripped through the Sunshine Acres mobile home park, destroying many of its structures and leaving a muddy grass field strewn with metal siding and smashed cars. Pink fiberglass insulation clung to downed power lines. Blankets dangled high in pine trees.
Two more fatalities were confirmed in Berrien County, according to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. And in Brooks County, a husband and wife were killed after a tornado picked up their mobile home.
“They were at home by themselves,” said Mike Miller, the coroner for Brooks County. “The tornado totally destroyed the mobile home, picked it up and put it in the middle of Highway 122.”
Throughout the day, the National Weather Service warned residents across north Florida and a large swath of Georgia to prepare for a “significant tornado outbreak” with strong wind gusts of up to 70 mph and quarter-sized hail. Even as far north as Atlanta, several metropolitan counties were under tornado watches until 8 p.m.
“Take cover,” the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee advised on Twitter in a flurry of public tornado and storm warning alerts. “This is a Tornado Emergency!”
At the White House, President Trump said he had spoken with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to express his condolences. "Tornadoes were vicious and powerful and strong, and they suffered greatly, so we'll be helping out the state of Georgia," Trump told reporters at an official swearing-in ceremony.
Deal, who declared a state of emergency for seven Georgia counties, warned residents to take precaution as more thunderstorms swept across the state.
“These storms have devastated communities and homes in south-central Georgia,” Deal said. “I urge all Georgians to exercise caution and vigilance in order to remain safe and prevent further loss of life or injuries.”
The Georgia storms came after four people were killed and more than 50 others injured early Saturday when a tornado slashed through southern Mississippi, ripping the roofs off homes, uprooting trees, and tossing cars and trucks into creeks.
Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed, said Greg Flynn, public information officer with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Inside her small home just south of Hattiesburg, Miss., Mishayna Rollin grabbed her 2-year-old son, she told the Hattiesburg American. They huddled in the bathtub as the roof of their home was ripped off, the doors blew open and glass smashed everywhere. The roof landed on her father and his girlfriend, who survived.
“We pretty much freaked,” she said later, cradling her dog as she surveyed the devastation from her yard.
Tornado activity is rare in the Southeast in January, although not unheard of. In 1999, a major tornado outbreak swept through Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi over several days in mid- to late January, killing 18 people.
However, the region’s peak tornado season is typically in the later spring months, said Wool of the National Weather Service.
“This is unusual, but it’s been unusually warm throughout the entire winter,” he said. “We’re getting spring-like weather, regardless of what the calendar says.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
6:50 p.m.: Reorganizes to raise reference to Albany destruction.
5:40 p.m.: Updates with deaths reported in Albany, Ga., officials scaling back death toll in Cook County from eight to seven.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with information on a tornado hitting Albany, Ga., and other details.
2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with the new death toll and description of the scene.
The article was originally posted at 10:55 a.m.