BOONE’S CHAPEL, Ala. >> Vicious storms and howling winds smacked the Deep South, killing at least seven people in Alabama including three family members whose homes were tossed into nearby woods.
In Alabama’s Washington County, about 50 miles north of Mobile, a mother and her two children were among those killed, said state emergency management agency director Art Faulkner. One person was reported dead in Mississippi’s Greene County.
Combined with earlier reported fatalities in Arkansas and Oklahoma, the confirmed death toll had risen to 17 by early Saturday — the nation’s deadliest storm of the season.
Henley Hollon said Saturday that his 65-year-old brother, Willard Hollon, lived across the street from him in the Boone’s Chapel community about 25 miles from Montgomery. Henley Hollon said Willard Hollon and Willard’s two adult children, Steve and Cheryl, were killed when the storms roared through.
Henley Hollon said he had been watching the weather forecast on television — and thought the worst was over when the winds started to pick up.
"It got up real fast. The lights went out," he said. "We had to feel our way into the hall. It lasted less than a minute."
He then went outside to check on the limbs down in his yard and walked across the road to check on his brother.
"When I shined the light out there I could see it was all gone," Henley Hollon said. Two mobile homes had been ripped from their foundations, and all that remained Saturday morning were wooden steps and flowerbeds.
"The trailer was anchored down and the anchors are gone," said Autauga County Chief Deputy Sheriff Joe Sedinger. "But the steps are still there and the blooms are still on the flowers."
Willard lived in one of the homes with Steve, who had recently retired from the Air Force. Steve’s wife and two daughters also lived there — they had been remodeling a home nearby so the family could be close to Willard, Henley Hollon said.
Cheryl lived in the home next door. An American flag that had flown in front of her house was draped over a tree limb Saturday, about 100 feet from where here home had stood.
At Boone’s Chapel Baptist Church, near where the mobile homes had once been, the sanctuary’s walls and roof were gone. But hymnals were still on the pews. The adjoining Sunday school wing and gymnasium remained with little damage. Tammie Silas joined other church members in cleaning up debris and looking for any mementos that might be salvageable.
As she sorted through debris, she found two family photos that appeared to come from the Hollons’ homes. "This is all they’ve got left," she said as she clutched the two photos in her hands.
Seven people were hurt in the storm, including a firefighter injured during the emergency response, Sedinger said. He said the storm hopscotched for several miles, leaving some areas devastated and others untouched.
Another three deaths were reported early Saturday in Washington County in southern Alabama, said Yasamie Richardson, spokeswoman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.
The system had already destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, businesses and churches Friday afternoon in Mississippi, where crews worked to clear roads, find shelter for displaced families and restore power.
Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency,saidone death was reported in Greene County. He did not have further details, and the Greene County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately return a phone message Saturday.
In Marengo County in west-central Alabama, four separate tornadoes hit over the span of about five to six hours, emergency management director Kevin McKinney said.
The mobile home that had been tossed was a pile of rubble, along with another 30 homes or businesses that were destroyed, McKinney said. Four people had minor injuries.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley declared a state of emergency for the entire state, and the first race of a busy weekend at the Talladega Superspeedway was postponed until Saturday morning.
The storms began late Thursday in Oklahoma, where at least five tornadoes touched down and two people were killed. The system then pushed into Arkansas, killing seven more. Dozens of others were hurt.
Forecasters warned of approaching danger as much as three days earlier, but the winds up to 80 mph and repeated lightning strikes cut a path of destruction across a region so accustomed to violent weather that many people ignored the risk — or slept through it.
At Crystal Springs, lightning split a tree that fell into a home, killing an 18-month-old girl and her father as they slept. In Little Rock, winds knocked a tree into a home, killing a woman and her 8-year-old son in his bed.
In the Arkansas town of Bald Knob, a 6-year-old boy died when the top of a tree more than 6 feet in diameter crashed through his home while he was sleeping.
The worst damage in Oklahoma was in the small town of Tushka, where residents wondered what would become of their community after a twister damaged or destroyed nearly every home along the two main streets. The only school — a collection of buildings housing grades K-12 — was all but gone.
"It’s hard to deal with because we’re a small community with limited resources. It’s hard to do the cleanup," Mayor Brickie Griffin said.
Two people were killed and at least 25 hurt as the tornado plowed through the town of 350 before dawn.
Stacy George, who lives across the street from the school, slowly recovered items from the rubble of her home, which had shattered windows and a collapsed roof. A pickup truck had been blown into the side of the house. But George’s husband and 20-month-old son survived.
"We’re basically starting over," she said, laying out clothes, cowboy boots, a penny jar, a lamp and a chair in her driveway.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for 26 counties affected by the storm.
Back in Tuscaloosa, Ala., an apparent tornado damaged a motel and struck an oil change business, blowing the plastic out of large signs. Roads were crisscrossed with power poles and trees.
"It was a dark funnel coming down," said Sam Packwood, who works at Bama Mini Storage in Tuscaloosa. "The sirens went off and all; it was pretty exciting for 20 or 30 minutes. I hope nobody got hurt."
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham; Chuck Bartels and Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock; Nomaan Merchant in Bald Knob; Kristi Eaton in Tushka, Okla.; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; and Jeff Martin and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta contributed to this report.