TAMPA, Fla. – A dangerous weekend weather system has killed at least 18 people in the U.S. South, as Georgia officials on Sunday reported more than a dozen deaths after severe thunderstorms and tornadoes buffeted several states, Reuters reports.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared an emergency for seven counties in the south-central part of the state, warning that dangerous conditions persisted and could reach north to the Atlanta area.
“I urge all Georgians to exercise caution and vigilance in order to remain safe and prevent further loss of life or injuries,” Deal said in a news release. Photos from the affected areas showed collapsed buildings, homes with roofs destroyed, toppled trees and fields littered with debris.
Seven deaths occurred in Cook County, Georgia, state emergency managers said in a statement, with local reports that a mobile home park was particularly hard hit. Officials earlier reported eight deaths in the county.
First Baptist Church Adel, located in the county seat near the Florida-Georgia state line, was sheltering more than 50 people, said pastor Bill Marlette, who had just helped inform a family that two of their relatives were among the dead.
“There’s a lot of hurting people right now,” he said in a telephone interview. “There’s just a sense of shock.”
The storms in Georgia, which killed a total of 14 people, followed a predawn tornado in Mississippi on Saturday that killed four people. Severe weather also injured more than 50 others and damaged about 480 homes in Mississippi, state officials said on Sunday.
In Georgia, most of the storms had moved on by Sunday night, with a few still threatening coastal areas, said Mark McKinnon, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency.
The system prompted U.S. weather forecasters to issue a rare, “high risk” warning of severe storms threatening parts of southern Georgia, north and central Florida and Alabama on Sunday, the first such warning since 2014. South Carolina could also see severe weather.
“These could be the kind of tornados you don’t want to mess with,” said Rich Thompson, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
The system toppled trees and power lines in Georgia, northern Florida and Alabama on Sunday, the agency’s website reported. Hail was sighted in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
In Alabama, some 29,000 power outages were reported as of Sunday afternoon, Alabama Power tweeted. Several thousand had also been without power in Mississippi, where utilities were working to restore service.
The severe weather was expected to last into Sunday evening. On the west coast, heavy rains from a separate system drenched parts of Southern California on Sunday.