(CNN) — Tornado warnings were issued for parts of Alabama and Mississippi on Thursday afternoon as the South braces for severe weather.
The National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, has issued a “tornado emergency” for areas just south and east of the city, in Shelby and Jefferson counties. Officials confirmed a tornado was located near Hoover, Alabama, a suburb south of Birmingham, and was quickly moving to the northeast at 45 mph.
A tornado emergency indicates there is a tornado that could have a potentially significant impact to human life and catastrophic destruction to property.
“Tornado safety plans, everyone,” the office said on Twitter. “Get low, get in the middle of the building. DON’T WAIT TO THE LAST MINUTE. TAKE COVER NOW!”
Radar had earlier confirmed a large and extremely dangerous tornado had touched down just southwest of Birmingham, according to the National Weather Service office there.
Pelham, Alabama, police have reported damage to the city’s civic complex and numerous homes, including extensive damage to the Crosscreek community.
No injuries have been reported in that neighborhood, city spokesperson Ainsley Allison said in a Facebook livestream Thursday afternoon. She urged people to stay off the roads so emergency personnel and residents could respond and assess the damage.
The footage showed trees, power lines and debris littering the streets. Roofs and entire rooms appeared to be torn off homes in the neighborhood, the video shows.
“It’s bad back here, and we need to say prayers for the people who live in this community and come together to help rebuild,” Allison said. “As you can imagine, these people are devastated.”
Police in nearby Helena have also reported major damage. All phone lines to the police department are down, the department said on Twitter, urging residents to call 911 if they need assistance.
More than 15,000 Alabama customers are without power, according to poweroutages.us.
But the potential threat Thursday goes far beyond the Birmingham area: More than 50 million people are at risk of severe weather, from the central Gulf Coast through the Ohio River Valley.
The Storm Prediction Center had said there’s a high risk of tornadoes — a level 5 out of 5 — for parts of the South. That’s the worst and highest forecast outlook issued for severe storms. And while it’s very rare for the SPC to issue this kind of outlook — it’s now the second time in a week for the South.
The SPC on Thursday afternoon issued a “particular dangerous situation” (PDS) tornado watch until 8 p.m. CT for around 5.5 million people in parts of western and northern Alabama, northwest Georgia, central and eastern Mississippi and southern Tennessee. A PDS tornado watch is issued when the SPC forecaster has high confidence that multiple strong tornadoes of EF-2 strength or higher will occur in the watch area.
“Long-track, strong to violent tornadoes are possible,” the SPC said, referring to tornadoes that remain on the ground for an extended period of time. The majority of tornadoes are on the ground for just minutes, but with some severe events, there can be tornadoes on the ground for hours. This kind of tornado is known for causing widespread damage.
A “dangerous environment” is developing over the watch area, with multiple rounds of severe storms expected, the SPC said. Tornadoes, damaging winds up to 80 mph and large hail are possible.
More than a million people are under the high threat for tornadoes, including in cities like Florence, Mississippi, and Decatur and Madison, Alabama. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday issued a state of emergency for 46 counties ahead of the expected severe weather.”
More than 7 million people are in areas with moderate threat for tornadoes — a level 4 out of 5 — and those include Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, Birmingham and Huntsville in Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi.
“The ingredients will combine on Thursday for another severe weather outbreak in the South,” said CNN meteorologist Chad Myers. “Very humid Gulf of Mexico air combined with strong rising motion will create multiple rounds of severe weather including rotating storms that could produce tornadoes.”
Threat is highest this afternoon and evening
Just last week, several states including Mississippi and Alabama, took the brunt of intense storms. National Weather Service offices confirmed 49 tornadoes Wednesday and Thursday that cut a combined path length of nearly 210 miles through the South.
Ingredients were there last week and tornadoes developed, but not as strong as forecasters thought possible. None of the 49 tornadoes were stronger than an EF-2 on a scale of 0 to 5.
Although the right atmospheric ingredients were present, they didn’t mix in precisely enough to produce the violent tornadoes that were forecast last Thursday.
“It’s like if you put too many carrots in chicken soup, you end up getting a sweet carrot soup and not chicken soup,” Myers said.
Severe storms will center Thursday across the Deep South as the severe storm risk area likely expands and becomes more significant. Strong storms will be possible from the Gulf Coast through as far north as Ohio.
Significant severe weather will affect the region today with hail, damaging winds and tornadoes all anticipated,” the NWS office in Jackson, Mississippi, said.
“At this time, the best potential for strong tornadoes appears to extend from parts of central/northern MS into western/middle TN and central/northern AL, mainly Thursday afternoon and evening as storms move generally northeastward,” the SPC said Wednesday afternoon.
The forecast shows that the atmospheric conditions will be ripe and “will support supercells with low-level mesocyclones capable of producing strong tornadoes and large hail,” the SPC said.
And it’s not just tornadoes: more than 6 million people were under a flash flood watch early Thursday spanning parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. Rainfall of up to four inches is expected in the region, with some areas seeing higher amounts.
Into the overnight hours of Thursday, the storms are expected to evolve into a line as it tracks into parts of Alabama and Georgia. By Friday, most of the South should dry out except for parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, where weakening showers and isolated thunderstorms could linger.
School systems changed plans due to weather
In a statement Thursday, Gov. Ivey urged Alabama residents to closely watch the storm system. The forecast prompted the state’s health system to reschedule a National Guard vaccination clinic in Hale County for Saturday.
School districts across the region changed plans, dismissing students early, going to online learning and canceling classed ahead of Thursday’s severe weather.
In Alabama, Anniston City Schools told parents through social media that students would have an E-day on Thursday. Gadsden City Schools announced they would be closed because of the storms.
Huntsville City Schools are dismissing students early. Tuscaloosa County Schools posted they would have a system-wide remote learning day. Birmingham City Schools also are planning a full remote day for Thursday.
Demopolis City school and Limestone County school officials also announced plans to dismiss classes early.
Meanwhile, the Calhoun County School District in Mississippi said on Twitter that “due to the likelihood of severe weather to include tornado activity, straight line winds, & hail” all campuses will be closed Thursday and students and staff will tune in virtually.
The Pontotoc County School District also announced Thursday will be a virtual day.
“If for any reason students are without power or internet, they will be able to make up the work,” officials with the school district posted on social media. “The domes at each campus will also be open tomorrow if anyone needs shelter.”
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