A swarm of tornadoes and other storms that left a trail of destruction across the Southeast killed four people, injured at least a dozen more and left victims to bundle up against the cold as they picked up pieces of their homes on Tuesday.
The death toll rose to four after heavy overnight rains caused flooding in Greenup County, Kentucky. Water rescue crews were called in about 8 a.m. Tuesday to aid two people, and at least one of them died, Kentucky State Police Trooper Bobby King said. He said crews were still trying to rescue another person.
National Weather Service teams confirmed at least 18 tornado paths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and the number could rise since teams were still surveying damage. The agency tweeted more than 240 tornado warnings for the region over roughly 21 hours starting early Monday.
Col. Bryan Olier, chief of staff at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, told a news conference that at least 25 counties were affected, 150 homes were reported damaged or destroyed and about a dozen were injured. The numbers are likely to grow.
“We had a storm front that went ... from the southwest corner of the state to almost central — some 60 to 80 miles (100 to 130 kilometers),” Gov. Phil Bryant said.
The Storm Prediction Center logged more than three dozen reports of storm damage from east Texas to Georgia.
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“The cat flew,” said Tonia Tyler of Pineville, Louisiana. “It picked the cat up, and the cat flew — my cat — it flew across the yard. And I knew right there, I said ‘Oh God, we're not going to make it.'"
In north Alabama, Lawrence County Coroner Scott Norwood said the bodies of Justin Chase Godsey, 35, and Keisha LeAnn Cross Godsey, 34, were found more than 200 yards (183 meters) from their home, the Decatur Daily reported. The couple's elementary-school-age son was hospitalized.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey expressed sympathy for the victims.
“While most of us slept through the storm, a family is waking up today devastated,” she said in a statement.
Betty Patin, 59, died when an apparent tornado struck her home in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, said Chief Deputy Calvin Turner. He said crews spent hours trying to cut through fallen trees and utility poles to reach some hard-hit areas.
The toll could have been worse.
Workers at Hope Baptist Christian Academy in Alexandria got children under pews in the church sanctuary before a twister ripped the roof off the building, said Gov. John Bel Edwards. A worker clung to a beam in a maintenance barn to avoid being hurled into the storm.
"I'm just thankful that we're looking at buildings and cars and travel trailers and mobile homes that have been destroyed here and not lives," Edwards said.
Some cities opened warming shelters as a cold front collided with warmer air over northern Gulf Coast states and sent temperatures plunging. In central Alabama, road workers dressed in coats and gloves to clear fallen trees off a highway as the temperature hovered around 40 degrees (4 Celsius).
After a day with highs in the mid-40s, overnight lows Tuesday were predicted to dip below freezing, putting pressure on utility crews to restore power to more than 15,000 homes and businesses left in the dark in the region.
In Alexandria, Louisiana, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of New Orleans, children in a church school were moved to the church before the tornado ripped off the school's roof, city police Cpl. Wade Bourgeois said.
Surveying damage with her family, Alexandria resident Summer Evans said there was a lot of devastation.
Evans said her house is undamaged, “but every other house around it is not."
Meteorologist Donald Jones of the National Weather Service office in Lake Charles said it appeared the twister that hit part of Alexandria also struck near the town of DeRidder on an “absolutely ridiculous” path estimated at 63 miles (101 kilometers) long.
“I don't know what our records for the longest total in this area is, but that's got to be pretty damn close to it,” he said. Survey teams were out Tuesday, checking whether the twister went all the way on the ground or skipped across that distance.
Three people were injured, at least one of them seriously, by an apparent tornado that hit Amite County, Mississippi, Monday afternoon, county emergency director Grant McCurley said.
Some houses were destroyed and others severely damaged, he said. The damage was spread across the county on the southeast Louisiana state line, McCurley said.
Four counties eastward, seven women were taken to a hospital from a heavily damaged group home in Sumrall, Mississippi. Injuries were minor, Sheriff Danny Rigel told WJTV.
In Guntown, Mississippi, near Tupelo and about 260 miles (420 kilometers) north-northeast of Amite County, an apparent tornado destroyed a church and damaged dozens of homes.
Pastor Carl Estes searched through the debris of Lighthouse Baptist Church for books, photos or any other salvageable items, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported. The storm flattened the building, which Estes said was empty at the time.
Church member Shane Keith told the newspaper he rushed there after the storm and found pews tossed around the hillside.
“I wanted to cry, I really did” Keith said. “I mean, I just got baptized last year and this means a lot to me, this place right here.”
December tornadoes aren't unusual. Monday was the 19th anniversary of a Southeastern tornado outbreak that produced a twister that killed 11 people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Storms on Dec. 1, 2018, spawned more than two dozen tornadoes in the Midwest.