COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — The full extent of the damage was coming into view Sunday after a tornado smashed into a commercial district in a small Mississippi city, killing at least one person and shattering businesses as severe storms raked the South on a weekend of drenching rains and a rising flood threat.
The tornado Saturday afternoon in Columbus was confirmed on radar, said meteorologist Anna Wolverton with the National Weather Service in Jackson. She told The Associated Press that experts would be headed Sunday to the east Mississippi city of about 23,000 people to gauge the tornado’s intensity.
A woman died after a building collapsed on her and three other people, the Columbus mayor’s office said Sunday in a statement on Facebook, citing information from Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant. The statement said 41-year-old Ashley Glynell Pounds of Tupelo was with three other people in a building that collapsed in the storm Saturday evening. The statement gave no information on the condition of the other three people.
Lee Lawrence, who said he has been selling used cars for decades in Columbus, told The AP that four buildings on his car lot had been destroyed. He said trees toppled across vehicles and car windows had been blown out. And he said he had no idea about how badly his collection of antique cars fared. A 1923 Studebaker and a 1930 Chevrolet were among the cars parked amid wind-tossed building debris.
Lawrence said he was at home getting ready to take a bath when the storm struck.
“The wind all of a sudden just got so strong and it was raining so much you could hardly see out the door, and I could hear a roaring. Evidently it came close,” he said, speaking with AP in a phone interview. He said someone called him soon after about the damage to his business and he rushed over.
“It will be a start-over deal,” Lawrence said. “I can’t say it will come back better or stronger, but we’ll come back.”
A photographer working for The AP in Columbus said some antique cars on Lawrence’s lot were parked among the damage and a nearby pet grooming business appeared now to be mostly twisted piles of metal. A printing shop had been speared by a pipe with great force and what seemed to be a vacant commercial building nearby appeared heavily damaged.
Firefighters and law enforcement officers had cordoned off the area, making it difficult to determine the extent of damage after nightfall. Power was out in the area.
Elsewhere around the South, homes, highways, parks and bridges were flooded or put out of commission amid the heavy rains and severe storms. News outlets report that water rescues have been performed in some Middle Tennessee counties. Flash flood warnings and watches remained in place throughout the South and one Mississippi community reported large hail.
Interstate 40 near the Tennessee line with North Carolina was closed by a rockslide, one of the dozens of roads and highways shut down throughout the region, transportation officials said.
Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Nagi said on Twitter that a “full scale detour” was in place, with traffic being diverted to Interstate 81 and Interstate 26.
High water threatened property in Tennessee, which, like many other areas of the South, has been soaked by several inches of rain over the past week. Officials said a mudslide destroyed a Subway restaurant in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. No injuries were reported.
In Bruce, Mississippi, rivers broke flood stage and flash floods poured into homes and businesses. News outlets report that officials in Grenada, Mississippi, declared a local state of emergency after dozens of streets and homes flooded. A 6-mile (9-kilometer) stretch of the Natchez Trace Parkway was closed in Mississippi after water covered part of the road.
The National Weather Service had issued a flash flood warning for northwestern Lafayette County in Mississippi after emergency officials reported that a local dam was at risk of failing. Meteorologist Kole Fehling says emergency officials reported the threat involved the Audubon Dam, which blocks a creek on the north side of Oxford and a subdivision.
Weather officials said the storm’s impact stretched from eastern Arkansas to northern Georgia and beyond. Alabama’s governor declared a state of emergency in several counties, hoping to speed recovery in event of damages.
Kentucky announced Friday that it was closing the U.S. 51 bridge over the Ohio River to Cairo, Illinois, because of flooding on the southern approach. The bridge, which carries 4,700 vehicles a day, is likely to stay closed until Thursday, and possibly longer.
Near Jamestown, Kentucky, the Army Corps of Engineers said it was increasing releases from the Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River. Areas downstream of the dam, from Rowena to Burkesville, could be affected by flooding as a result, officials said.
The Ohio River at Cairo is predicted to crest Sunday at its third-highest level ever recorded, and stay that high into next week. The Tennessee River near Savannah, Tennessee, also is forecast to crest at near-record levels.
Associated Press writers Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this story, along with freelance photographer Jim Lytle working in Columbus, Mississippi.