JACKSONVILLE, AL (AP) — Daybreak Tuesday revealed widespread damage after a night of violent weather in the Deep South, with a college campus shattered by an apparent tornado and thousands of buildings and vehicles battered by hail as large as baseballs.
The area around Jacksonville State University was among the hardest hit as storms swept across the South, part of a large system that prompted tornado warnings Monday in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Using couch cushions for protection, Richard Brasher hid in the bathtub with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren as the storm passed near the college. The roar was terrifying, said Brasher, 60.
“I thought we were gone,” he said. “It happened so fast.”
Several shelters opened, schools were closed, trees and power lines were down, and Jacksonville State advised people to avoid traveling near campus Tuesday morning. Most students were away for spring break.
Part of the roof was ripped off the nursing school and Pete Mathews Coliseum, a 3,500-seat basketball arena. Pieces of lumber and bent metal covered the ground along with insulation that looked like yellow cotton candy.
To the west in Cullman, the lots of automobile dealerships were full of cars and trucks that no longer had windows. The sheriff shared a photo of a county jail bombarded by hail but said the prisoners were fine.
Schools were closed in several counties because of damage. Alabama Power Co. said more than 9,000 homes and businesses were without electricity.
Forecasters had warned that the storms would threaten more than 29 million people, raising the risk of powerful tornadoes, damaging winds and hail the size of tennis balls.
Cities in northern Alabama reported power outages and the National Weather Service in Huntsville reported at least three confirmed tornadoes in the area.
Officials suspected a tornado was to blame for the damage in Jacksonville, where Brasher said he was standing in his hall when the kitchen windows exploded.
With electrical transformers exploding and trees crashing down all around, Brasher said, it felt like wind “picked up and shook the whole house.”
“We were scared to death. It blew the paint off my house,” Brasher said.
The National Weather Service said five teams were out in Alabama assessing storm damage.
The weather service was also sending survey crews to at least two Georgia communities to investigate whether tornadoes caused widespread damage to homes there.
In Haralson, Georgia, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) southwest of Atlanta, the Haralson County School District said schools would be closed Tuesday due to storm damage “throughout our community.” Damage was also reported in Fairburn, Georgia, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Atlanta.
The same storm system that battered Alabama and Georgia was taking aim Tuesday at a large part of Florida and coastal communities in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Much of north Florida and the entire Georgia and South Carolina coasts would be at an “enhanced” risk for severe storms Tuesday, which could include damaging winds, large hail and a few tornadoes, the National Storm Prediction Center. A small part of the North Carolina coastline was also included in the area most likely to see severe weather.
The area most at risk for Tuesday’s storms is heavily populated, with more than 10 million people and major Florida cities such as Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina.