Lines of powerful thunderstorms packing possible tornadoes and heavy rain raced across the South Wednesday, killing a man in Louisiana, injuring at least eight people in Mississippi and slamming into a skating rink filled with 31 preschoolers in Montgomery, Ala., destroying the building as youngsters huddled inside.
One child suffered a broken bone and another had a head laceration, but everyone else was fine.
"I'm amazed that anyone got out of there," said Mayor Bobby Bright.
Authorities said they were unsure whether a tornado or strong thunderstorm hit the Fun Zone Skate Center, which has a preschool during the day. An apartment complex across the street also was damaged, but no injuries were reported.
Elsewhere, a possible tornado tore through a community south of Montgomery, toppling trees, overturning a mobile home and knocking out power at a school. A few homes also were damaged in south Alabama, and downpours of as much as 4 inches of rain caused minor flooding.
No serious injuries were reported.
Children were in only area saved
The storm hit the skating rink about 10:15 a.m., when 31 children and four adults were inside for day care. The manager made everyone get into the lone section of the building that survived the high winds.
"She may have saved many of these children's lives," said the mayor.
Russell Grant showed up to take home his 5-year-old son Justin after hearing what had happened.
"I wasn't panicked until I saw the building," he said.
Tantameka Moorer, who works at a drug store across the street from the rink, said the doors flew open as the wind picked up quickly.
"I ran to close the doors and it was like the sky was actually on the ground," she said. "It was gray and there was a lot of rain."
In the southeast Alabama town of Elba, police investigator Tony Harrison said several people were sent to a hospital after storms overturned trailers near a rural intersection.
"Tornadoes have touched down in a couple of places. We have a number of areas that have been messed up," he said.
Damage was also reported in Covington County near the Florida state line.
Damage, injuries in other states
More injuries were reported in Arkansas, where the wind toppled at least five tractor-trailer rigs along Interstate 40 and damaged a hotel.
The man killed near Greensburg, La., was in a trailer covered by a wooden structure when the tornado hit shortly before dawn, said Maj. Michael Martin of the St. Helena Sheriff’s Office.
“It was total destruction,” Martin said.
He said one or more tornadoes damaged buildings and power lines and downed trees along a path about 2 miles wide and 3 to 4 miles long.
Several buildings were reported damaged in southeastern Louisiana’s Tangipahoa and Washington parishes, near the Mississippi state line, and more than 40 homes were damaged or destroyed in four counties in southwestern Mississippi.
In Mississippi’s Lamar County, emergency operations center director James Smith said a possible tornado struck a subdivision outside Sumrall at about 2:50 a.m.
“It appears to be a tornado from the reports of damage we’ve received — including 11 destroyed or damaged homes — and from the track,” Smith said.
Smith said six people were taken to hospitals from the Sumrall area, and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said two other people were injured in Greene County.
Billy Morgan said he was in his office workshop near Glade when a possible tornado blew the windows out.
“All I heard was a loud roar and then the next thing everything was on top of me,” Morgan told The Hattiesburg American.
Flooding along coast
Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, devastated last year by Hurricane Katrina, heavy rain flooded streets and closed some schools. City Hall in Biloxi suffered roof and water damage, and Mayor A.J. Holloway told The Sun Herald it appeared that a small tornado had touched down in the area.
As the storms moved eastward, as much as 4 inches of rain fell in southern Alabama, flooding some homes, authorities reported.
In Arkansas, the thunderstorms toppled tractor-trailer rigs along Interstate 40 in Arkansas, and police said at least four people were hospitalized. Authorities said a hotel near Wheatley had structural damage.
The storms caused flash flooding in Arkansas, including the Little Rock area, where police said they rescued two people who escaped high water by climbing trees.
More than 3.5 inches of rain fell at Little Rock, including more than an inch in 20 minutes at the city’s airport, the weather service said. Hail the diameter of quarters pounded areas west of the city.