At least 33 people were killed after tornadoes began ripping through the South on Easter Sunday, destroying homes and storefronts and leaving over 1 million people without power from an intense storm system now headed toward the mid-Atlantic.
Tornadoes and other severe weather hit Central Texas early Sunday, bringing “gigantic” hail and damage, and then traveled east through Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.
In Mississippi, the state’s Emergency Management Agency said 11 people died in at least three counties near the Louisiana border — Walthall, Lawrence and Jefferson Davis.
Seven more lost their lives in Murray County, Georgia, Fire Chief Dewayne Bain told NBC News on Monday morning. The rural county, an hour outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, was hit hard. Several people were found dead in a trailer park. Another person died in Bartow County, north of Atlanta.
In Tennessee, where three people were killed, police deployed at least 26 teams of officers to check on residents who requested emergency assistance. Seventeen people were treated for injuries, officials said.
Nine people were killed in South Carolina, including five in the small city of Seneca, an emergency management official said. Falling trees felled by powerful winds killed two people across the region — a man in his home in White Hall, Arkansas, and a woman who died in her bedroom in Davidson County, North Carolina, officials said.
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The governors of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama declared states of emergency to help recover from the damage caused by the storms, as 41 tornado were reported in 24 hours.
On Monday morning, severe thunderstorms capable of damaging winds, tornadoes and hail continued in northern Florida, Virginia and the Carolinas. Forty million people were at risk for severe storms from New Jersey to Florida as heavy rains up to New England will continue until Monday evening. More than 160 million people were under wind alerts in almost every state east of the Mississippi River.
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As emergency crews continue to sort through the wreckage, Mississippi officials have not released more information on the dead, but the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office announced late Sunday that one of its deputies, Robert Ainsworth, and his wife were killed.
“Robert left this world a hero, as he shielded Mrs. Paula during the tornado,” the department said in a statement on its Facebook page. “He was a very valuable employee and will be greatly missed.”
The storms, which have left more than 1 million people without power across the Southeast, according to an outage tracking website, come as the states hit by the storms are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
In Louisiana, one of the places hit hardest by the virus, Monroe, a small city in the northern part of the state, had to close its airport after storms caused extensive damage. Gov. John Bel Edwards asked residents to remain home as severe weather continued and as cases of the virus soared past 20,000.
In Alabama, the National Weather Service’s Birmingham division acknowledged the difficulty of grappling with two separate dangers.
“The decision to seek shelter in a community storm shelter is certainly made more difficult by the consideration for COVID-19, and each individual will need to make an educated decision on where and when to shelter from a tornado,” the agency wrote in a joint statement with the Alabama Public Health Department on March 22.
The agencies recommended that residents make protecting themselves from a potential tornado their “first priority.”
“If a [tornado] warning is issued for your area, you are more likely to be affected by the tornado than the virus,” the statement read.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey suspended some stay-at-home orders, saying shelters and community safe rooms needed to stay open so anyone could seek refuge while “implementing reasonable practices and procedures” to prevent spreading COVID-19.
In Starkville, Mississippi, families tried to practice social distancing as they crowded into an emergency shelter. The state’s emergency management system asked those sheltering to “please wear a mask, bandana, or scarf” around their faces and keep their distance from others.
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When more than 20 people were injured after a tornado hit Jonesboro, Arkansas, on March 28, the mayor said shelter-in-place guidelines might actually have saved lives, as fewer people were out on the roads and in stores when the tornado hit.
How residents deal with protecting themselves from dual dangers is on the minds of government officials throughout the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast as the storm travels north Monday.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged residents in the western region of the state to take precautions Sunday as they brace for a storm system expected to bring high winds and rains until Tuesday. Cuomo said the storm could cause flooding and power failures in the state hardest hit by the pandemic, with over 195,000 cases of coronavirus, including more than 10,000 deaths, as of Monday night.
In New York City, a coronavirus field hospital in Central Park with a wind threshold of 65 mph might see its limits tested after a high wind warning was issued. Forecasts show the city might see winds of over 60 mph.
CORRECTION (April 13, 2020, 8:45 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated when a tornado struck Jonesboro, Arkansas. It was March 28, not Sunday.
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