BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A powerful winter storm raked the Southeast on Thursday with high winds, rain and floods that killed at least four people and injured several more across a dozen states. Rescue crews repeatedly pulled people from cars that got stuck in high water, but couldn’t reach a person whose vehicle disappeared into a rain-swollen creek.
The storm front destroyed mobile homes in Mississippi and Alabama, caused mudslides in Tennessee and Kentucky and flooded communities that shoulder waterways across the Appalachian region. In Florida, high winds prompted the closure of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Tornado watches were in effect Thursday night from northern Florida up through North Carolina.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency Thursday evening because of heavy rains and extreme flooding in several areas. More than 500 people in and around Richlands, in southwestern Virginia, were displaced by flooding and needed rescue from their homes, he said in a statement.
In Harlan County, Kentucky, two mobile homes floated away as dozens of families were evacuated amid rising water, authorities said.
"It's a very bad situation that continues to worsen by the hour,” said Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosley.
Rain kept falling over a path of splintered trees and sagging power lines that stretched from Louisiana into Virginia. School districts canceled classes in state after state as bad weather rolled through.
One person was killed and another was injured as high winds destroyed two mobile homes near the town of Demopolis, Alabama, the Storm Prediction Center reported.
The victim, Anita Rembert, was in one of the homes with her husband, her child and two grandchildren, said Kevin McKinney, emergency management director for Marengo County. The man was injured but the children were unhurt, he said.
High winds there left roadsides strewn with plywood, insulation, broken trees and twisted metal. The National Weather Service was checking the site for signs of a tornado.
Weather-related crashes left at least three people dead and numerous authorities pleaded with motorists to avoid driving where they couldn’t see the pavement.
A driver died in South Carolina when a tree fell on an SUV near Fort Mill, Highway Patrol Master Trooper Gary Miller said. The driver’s name wasn’t immediately released.
In North Carolina’s Gaston County, a driver was killed after his pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain, plunged down a 25-foot embankment and overturned in a creek, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol said, according to news outlets. Terry Roger Fisher was pronounced dead at the scene.
An unidentified man died and two others were injured Thursday when a car hydroplaned in Knoxville, Tennessee, and hit a truck, police said in a news release.
In Pickens, Mississippi, the ceiling caved in and furniture flew around 64-year-old Emma Carter’s mobile home. She considered herself lucky after surviving an apparent tornado.
Carter, her two daughters and two grandsons were inside when the strongest winds hit Wednesday afternoon. Her grandson, DeMarkus Sly, 19, told everyone to lie flat and cover their heads as aluminum sheeting from nearby structures slammed into the home.
“We are blessed that nobody got hurt, that nobody got killed,” Carter said.
Flooding, meanwhile, forced rescuers to suspend their search for a vehicle missing with a person inside it in north Alabama’s Buck’s Pocket State Park.
“As the car started shifting because of the water we noticed what appeared to be an arm reaching out,” witness Kirkland Follis, who called 911, told WHNT-TV. The vehicle quickly disappeared Wednesday in waters too dangerous for divers to search.
In Tennessee, teacher Brooke Sampson, 36, was killed and four people were injured Thursday when a rain-soaked tree fell on a van carrying Sevierville city employees, officials said.
The crash, though still under investigation, appeared to have been weather-related according to preliminary information, said Lt. Bill Miller, a spokesman for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Tree limbs and fences were toppled when a confirmed tornado hit the Birmingham suburb of Helena, officials said, and some roads and parking lots were covered by floodwaters. A yellow taxi was abandoned in high water early Thursday on an interstate ramp in Birmingham.
Anyone who lives near rivers and lakes in the Tennessee Valley should prepare for rapidly changing water levels, said James Everett, senior manager of the TVA’s river forecast center in Knoxville, Tennessee. He said the TVA is managing water levels behind 49 dams to avert major flooding, but with more rain expected next week, the agency may have to release water downstream.
In Kentucky, Harlan, Bell and Knox counties declared states of emergency. Bell Judge-Executive Albey Brock said the heavy rains washed out roads and led to rock slides and water rescues.
In Georgia, a tree crashed onto the interstate in Dunwoody, north of Atlanta, crumpling a car but causing no serious injuries, authorities said. Huge trees toppled and snapped in the state’s northwestern Gordon County, smashing a home and blowing roofs off outbuildings.
Students were told to shelter in place while tornado warnings were in effect in the Atlanta suburbs and at the University of Georgia in Athens. Children in the Lawrenceville area huddled in school hallways as the weather moved through.
In southern West Virginia, residents at a nursing home were asked to remain inside after a road leading directly into the facility buckled during heavy rains.
The airport in North Carolina’s largest city evacuated a control tower and advised people to shelter in place because of a tornado warning. Charlotte-Douglas International Airport later tweeted that an inspection of its airfield showed no damage. More than 460 flights into and out of the airport were canceled Thursday.
More than 110,000 homes and businesses were without power across the South, according to poweroutage.us, and the rain was forecast to continue into Friday across much of the region.