At least two people died after a tree crunched their mobile home during, damaging homes, destroying a fire station, trapping people in a grocery store and ripping the roof off an apartment complex, authorities said Wednesday.
The National Weather Service had warned that strong twisters capable of carving up communities over long distances were possible as the storm front moved eastward from Texas. They were fueled by record high temperatures and threatened a stretch of the United States where more than 25 million people live.
A total of 73 tornado warnings and 120 severe thunderstorm warnings were issued from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday morning, said Matthew Elliott, a meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
Significant tornado damage was evident in the Flatwood community north of Montgomery, Alabama, where two people were killed as a tree struck their home, said Christina Thornton, director of the Montgomery County Emergency Management Agency.
Others in the tight-knit community narrowly escaped with their lives: Caroline Bankston said she and Tim Wiseman were watching the news and trying to figure out where the twister was when she looked out the window and realized it was on top of them. They ran to a safer corner as the roof caved in, burying their sofa in debris.
"We just prayed, prayed, prayed, 'Please God Please take care of us. Please,' and he did. You can replace stuff, but you can't replace a person," Bankston said, her voice still trembling. "We were just sitting there on the couch. Thank God we moved."
Search and rescue teams would continue going door to door until everyone's accounted for, Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham said.
Isaiah Sankey, who represents Flatwood as vice chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, expressed grief for the lives lost and vowed that installing storm shelters will be a priority.
"When we do rebuild, we will have storm shelters," Sankey said. "We have got to prepare for these unforeseen circumstances."
In the west Alabama town of Eutaw, large sections of the roof were missing from an apartment complex, displacing 15 families in the middle of the night, and power lines and trees were "all over the road," Eutaw Police Chief Tommy Johnson told WBRC-TV.
High winds downed power lines, and flooding was a hazard as more than 5 inches of rain fell within several hours in some places. More than 50,000 customers in Mississippi and Alabama were without electricity Wednesday morning, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility outages.
Forecasters had been warning of the potential for a tornado outbreak for several days ahead of the storm. Elliott, who coordinates the warnings, said it took a lot of work to get the word out as people celebrated the holidays, and it seemed that people were taking the threat seriously.
"It's a very vulnerable part of the country for tornadoes — especially tornadoes after dark," Elliott said. "We all have to work together to get the best results on these types of events that could potentially lead to lots of devastation."
In Steens, Mississippi, a late-night tornado ripped trees from their roots and left homes in tatters. And in Lowndes County, one fire department wasn't spared. It took a hit with its roof being torn off.
A ferocious downpour also hit Starkville, Mississippi, overnight. Police and first responders blocked off a rain-soaked street in the eastern part of the state, where county officials say several shoppers were temporarily trapped inside a damaged grocery store.
Record high temperatures in Texas and Louisiana intensified the storm front before it moved into Mississippi and Alabama, forecasters said Wednesday.
Shreveport, Louisiana, heated up to 81 degrees on Tuesday and Tyler, Texas, hit 82 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in Shreveport. Both those marks broke the old record of 80, set in 1949, the weather service said.
Video posted to social media Tuesday afternoon captured blistering wind gusts and hail pounding the northwest Alabama town of Muscle Shoals, while thunderstorms drenched the Morgan County area in north central Alabama. Video also showed downed trees in the west central Alabama city of Eutaw. The NWS reported that the storm that hit the Eutaw area "produced a tornado debris signature."
Manuel Bojorquez contributed to this report from Eutaw, Alabama
for more features.