Biden approves disaster funding after tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia | tornadoes

Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration for Alabama on Sunday after at least nine people were killed in tornadoes that destroyed homes and cut power to tens of thousands in southeastern U.S. states this week.

The president ordered federal assistance to supplement regional recovery efforts in areas hit by severe storms, winds and tornadoes on Jan. 12, the White House said in a statement.

At least five tornadoes made landfall in central Alabama on Thursday, according to Jessica Laws, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS). Biden’s action made federal funds available in Autauga and Dallas counties.

In rural Autauga County, an engine mechanic described taking refuge in a shipping container when a tornado destroyed his business and killed two of his neighbors.

Harrowing stories told by David Hollon and other survivors emerged as residents combed through the rubble. At least seven people died in Autauga County.

When Hollon and his colleagues saw a massive tornado coming their way, they knew they had to seek shelter immediately.

Hollon said they encountered a metal container near the back of his garage because the container was anchored to the ground with concrete. Once inside, Hollon frantically began calling his neighbor. But when he heard the storm tear the garage apart, the call continued to voicemail.

The storm passed and Hollon and the other workers emerged, only to find the neighbor’s body in the street, he said. Another neighbor also died, a family member said.

“I think we did a lot better than most. We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still here,” Hollon, 52, said Saturday as he walked through the remains of his garage and walked through a field riddled with battered cars, shattered glass, broken branches, splintered wood and was strewn with other debris.

A damaged home in Pine Level, Alabama.
A damaged home in Pine Level, Alabama. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Leighea Johnson, a 54-year-old cafeteria worker who also lives in Autauga County, stood among the remains of her trailer. She pointed to a high pile of rubble that she identified as a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. A swing set in her backyard was across the street and was mangled between a few trees. Her outdoor trampoline was wrapped around another stand of trees in a neighbor’s front yard.

“The trailer was supposed to be here, and now it’s not,” Johnson said. “And it’s everywhere now.”

The storm brought strong vortices and winds to Alabama and Georgia, uprooting trees, blowing up mobile homes, derailing a freight train, overturning cars, breaking utility poles and tearing down power lines, leaving thousands without power. According to the NWS, suspected tornado damage has been reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and 14 counties in Georgia.

Autauga County officials said the tornado generated winds of at least 136 mph and damage consistent with an EF3, two steps below the strongest category. County authorities said at least a dozen people were hospitalized and about 40 homes were destroyed or badly damaged, including mobile homes that were thrown into the air.

Local residents described how people rushed into shelters, bathtubs and sheds when the wind died down. In one instance, a search team found five people trapped but unharmed in a storm shelter after a wall of a nearby home fell on it.

Downtown Selma was badly damaged, but no fatalities were reported.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said the damage was being felt throughout his state. Some of the worst reports came 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 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.

Damage outside of Sturdivant Hall in Selma, Alabama.
Damage outside of Sturdivant Hall in Selma, Alabama. Photo: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Johnson, the Autauga County cafeteria worker, said she was at work when she learned the storm was heading straight over her home. She quickly warned her daughter, who was at home with her two-year-old grandson.

“I called my daughter and said, ‘You don’t have time to get out, you have to get somewhere now,'” Johnson said. “And she said, ‘I’m getting in the tub. When the house is trashed, I’ll be in the tub area.’”

The call was canceled. Johnson kept calling. When she finally got back in touch, her daughter said, “The house is gone, the house is gone.”

Her daughter and grandson have cuts and bruises but are otherwise fine, Johnson said.

“I brought her home and then tried not to let go of her,” Johnson said. “I’ve lost a lot of things materially and I don’t have insurance, but I don’t care because my child is fine. That’s really all that matters to me.”