— MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — A school, church and several homes in downtown Mobile were damaged by a likely tornado Tuesday before the storm system that brought twisters to many places in the South moved to other parts of the state.
Waves of storms moved across the city, complicating damage assessments because of the continued threat of high winds or twisters. National Weather Service officials Tuesday night said information on top wind speeds was not immediately available. The agency expected to perform damage assessments Wednesday morning.
Forecasters in Mobile said southwestern Alabama could see a series of severe thunderstorms following the tornado, and additional twisters could form in the area through the early morning.
Tornado warning sirens blared more than two hours after the first line of storms came through.
Rick Cauley, his wife, Ashley, and two children were hosting members of both of their families. When the sirens went off, the family headed down block to take shelter at the athletic field house at Mobile's Murphy High School.
"As luck would have it, that's where the tornado hit," Cauley said. "The pressure dropped and the ears started popping and it got crazy for a second." They were all fine, though the school was damaged.
WALA-TV posted a photo (http://bit.ly/TszP4J) of a large funnel cloud forming in the distance around 5 p.m. Tuesday. As of 8 p.m. no serious injuries had been reported.
The storm overturned cars and blew out windows at Mobile Infirmary, which was operating on generator power because of outages, but no one was hurt, said Nancy Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Mobile County Commission.
Scott Rye, a senior warden at Trinity Episcopal Church, said a large section of the church's roof was missing and the front wall of the parish hall building was destroyed in the storm.
"Thank God this didn't happen last night," Rye said. The building was crowded Monday night for Christmas Eve services.
Rye said Mobile Fire-Rescue officials told church members to leave the complex because it was structurally unsound. He said a number of the mature oaks lining Dauphin Street — a main thoroughfare leading from downtown Mobile to Interstate 65 — were downed by the tornado. Elsewhere on Dauphin, the roof was missing from a decades-old wood-frame house, and power lines crisscrossed the road.
Ashleigh Gerth and her husband, Jason, live on the street with their sons, ages 3 and 1. Ashleigh was watching TV and realized Mobile was in the warning area when she heard a roar outside. She and her husband got everyone into the bathroom with other relatives who were there for Christmas.
"It was like a freight train was going through," said Ashleigh. As she spoke, her youngest son rested in her arms and the older boy clung to her leg.
Jason Gerth said the storm passed by in a few moments and from his porch he saw about a half-dozen green flashes in the distance as transformers blew, but their home was spared.
"It missed us by 100 feet and we have no damage," Gerth said.
Lights burned in some homes, others were dark. Police set up roadblocks because limbs and trees downed by the storm covered residential streets; red and blue lights flashed as rain pelted police cars and fire trucks.
As of 8 p.m., 26,600 customers were without power statewide — about 21,500 of them in the Mobile area, Alabama Power reported. Officials said there were also pockets of customers without power in Demopolis, Haleyville and Greensboro.
After hitting Mobile, National Weather Service officials reported the storm was heading toward Grove Hill, which is about 80 miles north of Mobile in western Alabama.
The storm blew a barn and a silo across U.S. 43 a few miles outside of Grove Hill and flipped a vacant mobile home, said Clarke County emergency management director Roy Waite. Trees and power lines were down and workers were trying to fix a natural gas leak at a small manufacturing plant.
Mary Cartright said she was working at the Fast Track convenience store in the town on Christmas evening when the wind started howling and the lights flickered, knocking out the store's computerized cash registers.
"We've had some pretty heavy weather," said Cartright in a phone interview. "Our cash registers are down so our doors are closed."
The storm is part of a severe weather system that has already damaged parts of Louisiana and Mississippi and is moving east.
Brian Daly, a Mobile-based National Weather Service meteorologist, said forecasters were anticipating EF-2 and EF-3 tornadoes. On Dec. 20, an EF-1 tornado that hit Alabama and left 54,700 people without power.
A National Weather Service meteorologist based in Birmingham says a tornado watch is not in effect for the Birmingham area, although forecasters there are also expecting damaging winds and hail in central Alabama.