April 27, 2011 2:05:00 PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - At least five people were killed Wednesday as a wave of thunderstorms laced with tornadoes and winds blowing near hurricane force snapped trees, damaged buildings and left more than 260,000 without power across a wide area of Alabama, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.
State and local authorities reported two deaths in St. Clair County, northwest of Birmingham, one death in Jackson County bordering Tennessee and Georgia, and another person killed in Cullman County in northern Alabama. A fifth person was reported dead south of Birmingham in Jefferson County.
Mike Ashburn, assistant emergency management director for Jackson County, said the storm toppled so many trees across roadways that emergency responders were having trouble accessing neighborhoods with storm damage.
"You can''t assess all the damage yet because you can''t get through," Ashburn said. "You''ve got the fire departments and EMS clearing roads."
A man in the Jefferson County community of Vestavia Hills was killed by a broken limb that fell out of a storm-damaged tree. Pat Curry, chief deputy coroner for the county, said the storm had already passed and the man was watching his son remove debris from a neighbor''s car.
"It was already broken and was just hanging loose," Curry said. "Gravity took over, I guess."
A sheriff''s spokesman in Cullman County said emergency responders had found one person dead inside a car that had been crushed by a fallen tree. Emergency responders worked to free a second person, still alive, who was trapped in the car, said Josh Pendergrass, the sheriff''s operations director.
Gov. Robert Bentley had declared a state of emergency by midday, saying tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, hail, and straight line winds caused damage to "numerous homes and businesses" in Alabama. And more severe weather was expected later Wednesday.
The National Weather Service didn''t immediately confirm twister damage, but forecasters issued several tornado warnings and said winds blew as hard as 70 mph, just short of hurricane force.
Forecasters said the early-morning blast was a precursor to what was expected to be even stronger, longer-lasting storms later Wednesday.
"There is a high risk of tornadoes, strong winds and thunderstorms throughout the day," said weather service forecaster Mark Linhares.
Ted Springfield''s home near Birmingham was damaged by falling trees, and power was knocked out. Uprooted pines and splintered hardwoods littered his neighborhood.
"It''s like Hiroshima over there," Springfield said.
Winding his way under downed power lines and around broken trees, Springfield took his three children to their grandparents'' house before another wave of bad weather moved in.
"It''s all paint and wood - we''re OK," he said of the damage. "But I''ve got to get them somewhere safe."
Emergency management officials said two apparent tornadoes touched down in Marshall County, causing an undetermined number of injuries and widespread damage about 70 miles northeast of Birmingham.
"There are people trapped in mobile homes, in vehicles. We''ve got trees down all over, power lines down all over. It''s all over the county," said Phil Mayer, working in the county emergency management office.
Power lines and trees were down all over metro Birmingham, snarling traffic as commuters tried to get to work. Some residential streets were crisscrossed by large hardwoods that were blown over in the pre-dawn hours. Winds also damaged a hangar at the Birmingham airport, but spokeswoman Toni Herrera-Bast said flights were not affected.
In Tuscaloosa, workers used chainsaws to clear away downed oaks around the University of Alabama.
Emergency officials reported damage to numerous homes around Birmingham, and Alabama Power Co. said more than 260,000 businesses and home were without electricity.
Several school systems canceled classes, and even more delayed opening.
In Cullman County, Pendergrass said the morning storms caused serious damage to the Hanceville campus of Wallace State Community College. Officials were still trying to determine the extent of the damage.