They crowded in closets and piled in bathtubs, bracing for their lives as a tornado leveled a southern Georgia mobile home park, killing at least seven people there.
In all, the storms that ravaged the region overnight Saturday into Sunday left at least 18 people dead in the Southeast, including 14 in Georgia. Authorities did not release names of victims on Sunday.
The Georgia Emergency Management Agency said seven people died in Cook County, and there were two deaths each in Berrien and Brooks counties, in a largely rural area along I-75 between Albany, Georgia and Lake City, Florida, and three in Dougherty County.
“You can imagine putting a bomb in a mobile home and having it explode. That’s about what it looks like,” Adel Mayor Buddy Duke said Sunday of Sunshine Acres, a community of about 60 mobile homes outside of Adel in Cook County, about 200 miles south of Atlanta.
‘We were scared’
In Sunshine Acres mobile home park near Adel in Cook County, five people remained missing on Sunday, Duke said.
Residents who survived said they experienced a few minutes of terror that one said felt “like a nightmare on Elm Street,” referring to the popular horror movies. And when they emerged from their hiding places, they saw overturned cars, debris and scores of damaged mobile homes.
“As soon as I walked out the door, people were screaming, screaming for help,” said Phillip Gibbs, 24, who hid in the closet with five other family members.
As the tornado hit, Yesenia Mondragon, 24, said she jumped in the bathtub with her 1-year-old daughter, Layla. Her husband, Earnest Williams, 24, climbed on top of both of them to protect them.
“We were scared. We had never been in a tornado,” Mondragon said.
First high-risk alert issued since June 2014
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in seven south Georgia counties. He said the state will seek federal assistance as well.
“These storms have devastated communities and homes in South Central Georgia, and the state is making all resources available to the impacted areas,” Deal said in a statement.
“These storms have resulted in loss of life, numerous injuries and extensive property damage, and our thoughts and prayers are with Georgians suffering from the storm’s impact. … I urge all Georgians to exercise caution and vigilance in order to remain safe and prevent further loss of life or injuries.”
President Donald Trump offered condolences to Deal and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Trump said he had talked to Deal and would talk soon to Scott, acknowledging also that Alabama was “hit hard.”
The National Weather Service issued a rare “high risk” alert for severe thunderstorms, including strong tornadoes Sunday afternoon and evening for southern Georgia and northern Florida. This is the first high-risk alert issued since June 2014.
The weather service’s Storm Prediction Center issued a tornado watch for parts of Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The watch, which included the cities of Atlanta, Georgia, and Tallahassee and Panama City in Florida, remained in effect until Sunday night.
Damage in mobile home park, race track
A message on the mobile home park’s Facebook page read: “It is with deep sorrow that I write this, the majority of Sunshine Acres is no more. Most everyone is OK, there are some still missing.”
Gibbs’ stepfather, Gregory Reynolds, 53, recalled how the wind “tried to suck” him out of his home as he stood in his doorway watching what he said was a funnel cloud approaching in the distance around 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
Debris swirled in the wind, Reynolds said in an interview from a hotel in Adel where the family was staying.
Reynolds managed to pull away. He quickly woke his family, including Gibbs.
Gibbs then grabbed his two young daughters, and the family members crowded in the closet for safety as the tornado shook the mobile home.
Minutes later, Gibbs said it appeared one man was thrown from his trailer and had broken several limbs.
Reynolds said, “It sounded like a couple of trains coming by; it was so loud. And then all of a sudden it got quiet.”
After the storm, Duke said emergency dogs were attempting to “sniff out anything they can,” to find the missing.
“There were several small children that were found under debris,” he said.
Williams was among those who shifted into rescue mode after the storm passed. He ran in the direction of several firefighters.
“As soon as I get to one house, I heard a baby crying,” he said. “My brother and I dug through debris and found three or four people … several kids.”
Williams and several Sunshine Acres residents spent the night at a hotel waiting to hear when they could return home.
South Georgia Motorsports Park suffers damage
In Cecil, the South Georgia Motorsports Park was struck about 4:30 a.m., based on security camera video, said Jimmy Owen, track manager.
“The speedway is OK, but we had some damage to our luxury suites,” he said. “The roof was ripped right off and is lying on the drag strip now. It’s pretty bad. It leveled them.”
Owen said workers were cleaning up Sunday and expect to cancel next week’s racing. None had been planned for Sunday.
Fatal tornado in Mississippi
A fatal tornado struck southern Mississippi on Saturday, as severe weather gripped much of the Southeast. Preliminary damage assessments conducted in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Saturday showed the tornado packed winds reaching between 136 and 165 mph.
It killed four people and injured more than 50 in Forrest County, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said. Most damage was near the cities of Hattiesburg and Petal.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency.
In Alabama, 15 counties reported storm-related damage. Four people were injured in Choctaw County, said Greg Robinson of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.