Easter storms sweep through South, governors call for resilience

First responders, sheriffs, and governors are working to help people recoup from the tornado and storm damages amid the coronavirus pandemic. "Know that you are not alone," said one governor. 

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Chris Watson salvages a sign from the rubble of his trailer after surviving a deadly tornado in Murray County on April 13, 2020, in Chatsworth, Ga. In the aftermath, Gov. Brian Kemp said "We’ve got your back, and we will get through this together."

Storms that killed at least 30 people in the Southeast, piling fresh hardship atop a pandemic, spread across the eastern United States on Monday. Striking first on Easter Sunday across a landscape largely emptied by coronavirus stay-at-home orders, the storm front forced some uncomfortable decisions. In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey suspended social distancing rules, and some people wearing protective masks huddled closely together in storm shelters. 

Many people spent part of the night early Monday sheltering in basements, closets, and bathroom tubs as sirens wailed to warn of possible tornadoes. The storms blew onward through the night, causing flooding and mudslides in mountainous areas, and knocking out electricity for nearly 1.3 million customers in a path from Texas to Maine, according to poweroutages.us.

Andrew Phillips crowded into a closet-sized "safe room" with his wife and two sons after watching an online Easter service because the pandemic forced their church to halt regular worship. Then, a twister struck, shredding their house, meat-processing business, and vehicles in rural Moss, Mississippi. The room, built of sturdy cinder blocks, was the only thing on their property left standing.

"I'm just going to let the insurance handle it and trust in the good Lord," said Mr. Phillips.

The National Weather Service tallied hundreds of reports of trees down across the region, including many that punctured roofs and downed power lines. Meteorologists warned the mid-Atlantic states to prepare for potential tornadoes, wind, and hail on Monday. The storms knocked down trees across Pennsylvania, and an apparently strong tornado moved through southern South Carolina, leaving chaos in its wake. 

"Everything is up in the air. Power lines are down, trees are all over the place. It's hard to get from one place to the other because the roads are blocked," Hampton County Sheriff T.C. Smalls said.

A suspected twister lifted a house, mostly intact, and deposited it in the middle of a road in central Georgia. In Louisiana, winds ripped apart a metal airplane hangar.

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries in Louisiana, even though the storm damaged between 200 and 300 homes in and around the city of Monroe, Mayor Jamie Mayo, told KNOE-TV. Flights were canceled at Monroe Regional Airport, where airport director Ron Phillips told the News-Star the storm caused up to $30 million in damage to planes inside a hangar.

Louisiana's Shreveport Times reported: 

Roderick Sykes doesn’t remember much of what happened Sunday morning.

He was turning the channel on his television around 9 or 9:30 a.m. when he saw the back end of his mobile home raise up before he was flipped and tossed around.

Now, the mobile home the 63-year-old man has lived in for nearly 40 years in the Kingston-Frierson area of DeSoto Parish is scattered and splintered.

“I could have been dead,” Mr. Sykes said.

“I’m taking it as it comes to me, right now. I’m hurt about my house, but I didn’t lose my life. I can replace the house.”

In DeSoto Parish, Sheriff Jayson Richardson estimated about 10 to 15 homes are uninhabitable.

Fortunately, no injuries were reported, and all residents of the area have been accounted for, Mr. Richardson told The Times.

“That’s the biggest thing to take away from today is even with all the severe damage – and some of it looks like something you wouldn’t expect anybody to walk away from – certainly, it’s a blessing that we don’t have even an injury…” Mr. Richardson said.

"This is not how anyone wants to celebrate Easter," said Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. "As we reflect on the death and resurrection on this Easter Sunday, we have faith that we will all rise together."

"To the people of Mississippi, know that you are not alone," Mr. Reeves said on Twitter on Sunday night. "The state and our first responders are working around the clock and will not rest until this is over. We are mobilizing all resources available to protect our people and their property."

Deaths were tallied in small numbers here and there, considering the storm front's vast reach and intensity. 

Mississippi's death toll rose to 11 early Monday, the state's emergency management agency tweeted, promising details later in the morning.

The deaths in Mississippi included a married couple – Lawrence County sheriff's deputy, Robert Ainsworth, and a Walthall County Justice Court deputy clerk, Paula Reid Ainsworth, authorities said.

"Robert left this world a hero, as he shielded Mrs. Paula during the tornado," said a Facebook message by the sheriff's office.

Six more died in northwest Georgia, where a narrow path of destruction five miles long hit two mobile home parks, Murray County Fire Chief Dewayne Bain told WAGA-TV. 

"On the ground in Murray County, surveying the damage from yesterday’s storms" said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday afternoon on Twitter. "Our prayers are with the people who were affected and the families who lost loved ones. We’ve got your back, and we will get through this together."

Apparent tornadoes damaged dozens of homes in a line from Seneca to Clemson. Emergency officials also were working to open shelters in the North Carolina mountains after heavy rainfall there.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the National Weather Service confirmed a tornado struck, damaging at least 150 homes and commercial buildings. More than a dozen people were treated, but none of their injuries appeared to be life-threatening, Chattanooga Fire Chief Phil Hyman said.

As much as 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain fell over the weekend in the Tennessee Valley. The Tennessee Valley Authority said it expected to conduct water releases to regulate water levels in swollen lakes and rivers in Tennessee and Alabama.

In South Mississippi, Shakira Hall tweeted: "Despite losing possessions, I just want to thank God for just protecting my mama, daddy, and the rest of my family."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, and AP photographers Rogelio V. Solis in Carson, Mississippi, and Brynn Anderson in Chatsworth, Georgia, contributed to this report. Material from Shreveport Times was used in this report. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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