As Americans marked Easter Sunday amid the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the South faced a new menace.
A dangerous storm system that had produced at least 13 radar-confirmed tornadoes was battering Mississippi and Louisiana on Sunday night, killing at least six people, damaging homes and other buildings, downing trees and knocking out power to more than 45,000 customers.
The fatalities were all reported in Mississippi, three in Jefferson David County, two in Lawrence County and one in Walthall County, according to local authorities.
Photos of damage began circulating on social media, from down trees and power lines to damaged barns and flattened homes. At one point during a Facebook Livestream, a NWS meteorologist used the phrase “deadly tornado” five times in less than 30 seconds. They repeatedly begged people to take cover, warning the coming tornadoes were “violent” and “catastrophic.”
The National Weather Service reported tornadoes over the northwest and north-central parts of Louisiana. The city of Monroe said the storm damaged commercial buildings and homes in multiple neighborhoods.
More than 25,000 customers were without power in Louisiana, as well as more than 17,000 in Mississippi, according to poweroutage.us.
The fierce storm system is threatening more than 4.5 million people. Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, were particularly vulnerable, the Storm Prediction Center said.
The storms were expected to last through Sunday night and move through the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Northeast and the Eastern Seaboard into Monday, Accuweather said.
The National Weather Service office in Jackson told residents to brace for the possibility of relentless tornadoes with wind gusts up to 70 mph and tennis ball-size hail through Sunday evening.
“This could be one of our bigger events we’ve had in a long time around here. Take this seriously,” weather service forecaster Gary Goggins said in a public briefing broadcast on Facebook from the agency’s Birmingham-area office.
‘Take this seriously’: Southeast may see severe storms and tornadoes on Easter Sunday
Adding to the unprecedented nature of the day: the question of whether or not to open community storm shelters. The decision is usually made at the county or local level. But because federal and state public health officials are mandating people stay at home and avoid gathering in groups larger than 10, the equation is complicated.
In a video message posted on the Alexander City, Alabama, Facebook page, Mayor Thomas Spraggins said Saturday that people needed to find a safe place on their own since public buildings wouldn’t be open as shelters because of the pandemic. “I’ll be praying for everyone to have a safe and happy Easter,” he said.
But a statement from the city’s police department said shelters would be opened after all. Temperature checks would be performed and gloves and masks were being provided to anyone entering.
The initial decision against opening shelters was at odds with a message from Gov. Kay Ivey.
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“Both the National Weather Service and the State Public Health Department remind Alabamians that the use of shelters and other resources take precedent, should the need arise,” Ivey said in a statement Saturday.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a tweet Saturday that shelters would be open and encouraged residents to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and stay 6 feet apart.
If tornado shelters aren’t open, experts advise residents to take cover in their houses as best they can.
‘Easter of solitude’: Christians across the world mark Easter Sunday amid the coronavirus
Residents should seek protection in bathrooms with no exterior walls, stairwells or a basement, AccuWeather meteorologist and emergency preparedness specialist Becky DePodwin said.
The “main point is to put as many walls between you and the exterior walls,” she said.
Contributing: Doug Stanglin and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; Sarah Fowler and Wilton Jackson, The Clarion Ledger (Jackson, Miss.); The Associated Press