At least 12 people were killed in severe weather that struck southern Georgia on Saturday night and Sunday, bringing the weekend death toll from storms to 16 across the Southeast.
The deaths were confirmed by Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Catherine Howden. She said the agency was working to assess the damage.
GEMA said eight people died in Cook County, and two each in Berrien and Brooks counties, in a largely rural area along I-75 between Albany, Georgia and Lake City, Florida.
The storm leveled the Sunshine Acres Mobile Home Park near Adel, where seven of the deaths were reported, according to Lamar Ray, Cook County’s emergency management director.
“You can imagine putting a bomb in a mobile home and having it explode. That’s about what it looks like,” Adel Mayor Buddy Duke said.
Duke said five people are currently unaccounted for, and emergency dogs were in the area to “sniff out anything they can.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in seven south Georgia counties. He said the state will seek federal assistance as well.
“These storms have devastated communities and homes in South Central Georgia, and the state is making all resources available to the impacted areas,” Deal said in a statement.
“These storms have resulted in loss of life, numerous injuries and extensive property damage, and our thoughts and prayers are with Georgians suffering from the storm’s impact. … I urge all Georgians to exercise caution and vigilance in order to remain safe and prevent further loss of life or injuries.”
President Donald Trump offered condolences to Deal and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Trump said he had talked to Deal and would talk soon to Scott, acknowledging also that Alabama was “hit hard.”
The National Weather Service issued a rare “high risk” alert for severe thunderstorms, including strong tornadoes Sunday afternoon and evening for southern Georgia and northern Florida. This is the first high-risk alert issued since June 2014.
Much of the Southeast could also see continuing severe weather, including tornadoes, the weather service said.
The weather service’s Storm Prediction Center issued a tornado watch for parts of Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The watch, which includes the cities of Atlanta, Georgia, and Tallahassee and Panama City in Florida, was in effect until 8 p.m.
The weather service also issued a tornado emergency for Albany, a city more than 170 miles south of Atlanta, as a large tornado approached on Sunday afternoon.
Damage in mobile home park, race track
“It is with deep sorrow that I write this, the majority of Sunshine Acres is no more,” read a message on the Facebook page of Sunshine Acres mobile home park In the town of Adel in Cook County. “Most everyone is ok, there are some still missing.”
Many families live in the community of about 60 mobile homes, officials said.
Sunshine Park resident Gregory Reynolds, 53, said the wind “tried to suck” him out as he stood in his doorway watching what he said was a funnel cloud approaching in the distance around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. Debris swirled in the wind, he said.
Reynolds managed to pull away. He quickly woke his family, including his stepson, Phillip Gibbs.
Gibbs, 24, then grabbed his two young daughters, and the six family members crowded in a closet for safety as the tornado shook the mobile home.
“As soon as we got in there, it had touched down,” Gibbs, 24, said in an interview from an Adel hotel where his family was staying.
Minutes later, Gibbs said, he walked outside and saw downed tree limbs, trailers knocked off their blocks and overturned cars.
Gibbs said it appeared one man was thrown from his trailer and had broken several limbs.
“As soon as I walked out the door, people were screaming, screaming for help,” Gibbs said.
Reynolds said, “It sounded like a couple of trains coming by; it was so loud. And then all of a sudden it got quiet.”
South Georgia Motorsports Park suffers damage
In Cecil, the South Georgia Motorsports Park was struck about 4:30 a.m., based on security camera video, said Jimmy Owen, track manager.
“The speedway is OK, but we had some damage to our luxury suites,” he said. “The roof was ripped right off and is lying on the drag strip now. It’s pretty bad. It leveled them.”
Owen said workers were cleaning up Sunday and expect to cancel next week’s racing. None had been planned for Sunday.
Fatal tornado in Mississippi
A fatal tornado struck southern Mississippi on Saturday, as severe weather gripped much of the Southeast. Preliminary damage assessments conducted in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Saturday showed the tornado packed winds reaching between 136 and 165 mph.
It killed four people and injured at least 20 more in Forrest County, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said. Most damage was near the cities of Hattiesburg and Petal.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency.
In Alabama, 15 counties reported storm-related damage. Four people were injured in Choctaw County, said Greg Robinson of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.