Update: Extreme weather continues in East
NEW: A Tennessee official says a tornado was confirmed, but doesn’t expect deaths
- A National Weather Service meteorologist calls the twister outbreak “crazy”
- At least six are critically injured in Tennessee, and a twister is reported in Indiana
- A high school and prison were damaged in Alabama, but no injuries are reported
(CNN) — A powerful severe storm system moved across the United States on Friday, causing at least three apparent tornadoes from Alabama to Indiana and threatening even more destruction as the day wore on.
National Weather Service meteorologist John Gordon reported Friday afternoon the agency has about “half a dozen reports of tornadoes on the ground,” as well as reports of “significant damage” — stressing all the while that the worst may still be to come.
As of 4 p.m. ET, the weather service had 19 tornado warnings out affecting six states.
“This is an enormous outbreak that’s going on right now across Kentucky and the South,” Gordon said. “It’s crazy. It’s just nuts right here.”
Two of the reported twisters touched down in northeast Alabama, where residents were assessing damage to a high school, prison and other locales.
And shortly after issuing a tornado watch for large swaths of central and southern Indiana, central and eastern Kentucky and southwest Ohio, the National Weather Service reported that trained weather spotters detected a tornado at approximately 1:43 p.m. CT (2:43 p.m. ET) in southern Indiana.
There was no immediate word on damage or possible casualties from that touchdown in Posey County, near the Ohio River.
In Tennessee, severe weather was responsible for critical injuries of as many as eight people in the cities of Harrison and Oolteweh, officials there said.
The storm brought golf-ball-size hail, strong winds and rain into the two northeast Alabama counties before continuing on a northeastward path into Tennessee.
Between 40 and 50 homes in Hamilton County, Tennessee, have “significant damage that we know about,” the county’s Chief of Emergency Management Bill Tittle told CNN.
He said that there are 24 reported injuries and, while none of those appear to be life-threatening, he acknowledged that “we have not reached all the homes.”
“We obviously have lots of debris, homes with roof damage, streets that are impassable that we have crews cutting down trees with chainsaws in order to get emergency vehicles through, and as of now our crews are just going door-to-door on foot,” said Amy Maxwell, Hamilton County, Tennessee, emergency management spokeswoman.
Reporting from that area near Chattanooga, CNN’s Rob Marciano observed a continuous stretch of damage about 200 yards wide that ripped what had been brick and mortar homes down to their foundations.
Emergency personnel set up a makeshift triage area at a nearby convenience store for people who were still being pulled out of the rubble on Friday afternoon.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said a touchdown of a tornado had been confirmed, though he expressed optimism that sound preparation and safety measures appeared thus far to prevent any deaths.
“We’re just working diligently at this hour to try to make sure that everyone is accounted for,” Coppinger told CNN. “And hopefully we’ll be able to escape (without fatalities).”
Meanwhile, there were no immediate reports of injuries at either Buckhorn High School in Madison County or the Limestone County Correctional Facility in an adjacent county, both in Alabama.
But there was widespread damage in Madison County, the National Weather Service said, and some injuries were reported, according to a local ambulance service.
The Madison County Emergency Management Agency confirmed that a rain-wrapped tornado was spotted near the Harvest area, just northwest of Huntsville, which itself was hit hard by a tornado last year.
“The key thing that let me know it was serious was the loud wind,” said Hovet Dixon of Harvey, Alabama. “It almost seemed like it was trying to lift my roof off.”
The scene after the storm passed in the areas where the apparent tornadoes touched down looked similar to what parts of the Midwest and South suffered earlier this week, with damaged homes and downed power lines. Thousands were without power.
The warden for the Limestone Correctional Facility, Dorothy Goode, said the prison was hit by the storm. All prisoners — the facility holds about 2,200 — were accounted for, she said.
These were the first reported twisters from a storm system that threatened the already hard-hit Midwest and South.
Forecasters said the areas most at risk for twisters on Friday were southern Indiana, southern Ohio, most of Kentucky, central Tennessee, northeastern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama.
Storms were expected to proliferate during the afternoon, with the most likely window for tornadoes between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET, according to CNN meteorologist Sean Morris.
There is the potential for widespread damaging wind gusts, large hail and violent tornadoes in some areas.
Storms will begin to weaken during the late evening as they move east toward the Appalachians. The severe weather threat will diminish overnight Friday into Saturday morning, Morris said.
These tornadoes follow an earlier outbreak, that began Tuesday night and left 13 dead across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee and battered parts of Kentucky, as well.
Storm survivors recount horror: ‘Half the roof was coming off the house’
Son: ‘I saw nothing – literally. Her house is literally gone’
When the tornado ripped through Harrisburg, Darrell Osman ran toward his mother’s house.
“There were red and blue lights everywhere,” he said. “Other than that there was nobody else here.”
He wanted to check in on his elderly mother. But when he got there, he said he was shocked by what he saw – or didn’t see.
“I saw nothing – literally. Her house is literally gone, nothing there but the car that was sitting in the garage.”
“She had a laceration on her head and she was in quite a bit of pain,” Carolyn Osman said. “Every time the ambulance bounced, she cried out in pain.”
At the hospital, Darrell Osman learned his mother might not make it. He called his sister, who rushed to drive over from Indiana. But Mary Osman did not survive, becoming one of six people from this town to die from the storm.
Later, Darrell’s sister, Dena McDonald, said the destruction overwhelmed her as she made her way through Harrisburg.
“There really aren’t any words to describe when I drove through town and saw this,” McDonald said. “I thought, how terrifying. I knew by that time that more people than just my mom had perished. And so I wasn’t just heartbroken for my mom, I was praying for everyone who had lost a loved one.”
“The only thing getting me through this is knowing she’s in heaven,” he said as tears rolled down his face.
Part of Illinois development like ‘a slate wiped clean’ after tornado
Photos: Tornadoes take deadly toll
Survivor: ‘We had about two minutes to get in the bathtub’
Pat Anslinger heard the warning sirens just after 4 a.m. and rushed into action. Her first concern was protecting her mother, Thelma Wiley. The twister hit her house in Harrisburg two minutes later.
“I heard the sirens and could hear a locomotive sound coming straight at us, and I went ahead and put her in the bathtub and made her squat down, and I laid on top of her and we held on to each other in that tub,” Anslinger said.
“I had to hold onto her. I could feel all the forces pulling on my body, trying to take us out of here,” Anslinger said.
Survivor: ‘I noticed the walls separating from the house’
Justin Hicks and his family had little time to escape when the storm came barreling toward his Harrisburg home early Wednesday.
“When we woke up, half the roof was coming off the house,” Hicks said. “We managed to get the small children in the closet, and about the time the small children were in the closet, my wife and I noticed the walls separating from the house.”
Hicks’ home was destroyed, but he said it could have been much worse.
“We’re very lucky to be alive,” he said. “It happened so fast. I woke up to a chaos, and I’m sure a lot of people woke up to chaos. I wasn’t expecting it to be that bad.”
Man who was tossed downhill in trailer: ‘I don’t know how I’m here’
Steven Vaught of Greenville, Kentucky, said he is lucky to be alive to tell how he survived the storm.
“Why? I don’t know,” he said. “But I did.”
He teared up while recounting the moment the storm came rolling through in an interview with CNN affiliate WSMV-TV in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I was laying on the couch and all the sudden I start hearing a train,” he said. “I got up and took two steps off the couch and then me and the two dogs I have and the trailer started rolling down the hill.”
“Once it hit the ground on the fifth time, I saw daylight and I was sitting up against the stove like I was sitting in a chair,” he said.
Vaught had to get stitches in his bloodied chin and staples in his head from some of the injuries he sustained. But those were nothing, he said, compared with what he went through.
He shook his head as he took stock of the destruction around him.
“I don’t know how I’m here,” he said as his eyes welled up with tears.