ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — Chuck Stafford was watching the Atlanta Falcons rout the Green Bay Packers for the NFC title Sunday afternoon in the mobile home park in Albany where he’s lived for more than 31 years when the weather started getting bad.
Stafford, 74, had gotten up to go to the restroom during a commercial when the storm hit. He said the wind started blowing and the mobile home started shaking. “I grabbed hold of my washer and dryer, got my legs spread apart and hunched over,” Stafford said. “I guess I picked a good time to go to the bathroom.”
The force of the winds blew the windows out of Stafford’s trailer and glass was everywhere, but he survived the storm that has killed 19 people across the Southeast, including 15 in south Georgia alone.
Early Monday, Stafford was back at the trailer park with his sister, hoping to get in to look at his belongings. Meanwhile, fire and rescue crews kept residents out as they searched the debris looking for people who might have become trapped when the storm hit.
Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said that a total of four people died Sunday in the county that includes Albany.
Some 60 miles away, Coroner Tim Purvis in south Georgia’s Cook County confirmed seven people died at the mobile home park in the rural community of Adel, where about half of the 40 homes were leveled. Debris lay about not far from mobile homes largely untouched but emptied of survivors and cordoned off by police.
Elsewhere, shredded siding from mobile homes, a house stripped of exterior walls but left standing, even a piano blown outdoors, all bore evidence of the power of the powerful storms system that tore across the Deep South during two days, killing four in Mississippi on Saturday.
The 15 killed in south Georgia included two deaths each in the counties of Berrien and Brooks.
In South Carolina, the National Weather Service has confirmed that two tornadoes struck over the weekend, injuring one woman who was trapped in a mobile home that was damaged near Blackville. The weather service says a tornado touched down about 3:45 p.m. Saturday in Barnwell County and moved into Bamberg County. The other occurred in Orangeburg County a few minutes later.
Weather experts say tornadoes can hit any time of year in the South — including in the dead of winter. Even north Florida was under the weekend weather threat.
While the central U.S. has a fairly defined tornado season — the spring — the risk of tornadoes “never really goes to zero” for most of the year in the Southeast, explained Patrick Marsh of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
He said 39 possible tornadoes were reported across the Southeast from early Saturday into Sunday evening — none immediately confirmed. Of that, 30 were reported in Georgia, four in Mississippi, and one each in Louisiana and South Carolina.
January tornado outbreaks are rare but not unprecedented, particularly in the South. Data from the Storm Prediction Center shows that, over the past decade, the nation has seen an average of 38 tornadoes in January, ranging from a high of 84 in 2008 to just four in 2014.
Nineteen-year-old Jenny Bullard said she and her parents, Jeff and Carla, are glad to have escaped without major injury after an apparent tornado battered their home in Cook County. They are a farming family dating back generations, living not far from where the mobile homes were destroyed.
The middle section of their brick house was blown off the slab, leaving nothing but the kitchen island standing. On one side, the parents’ bedroom remained intact. Jenny’s bedroom on the other side was smashed in — and a piano was blown out of the house.
She recalled awaking to the sound of hail before dawn.
“The hall wall came in on me and I fell down. And our backdoor came through and fell in on me. And I heard my dad calling my name …There was a bunch of stuff on top of him and I just started throwing everything I could until I got to him,” she said.
Together, she and her father met up with their mother and got free.
The young woman wore a sling on one arm hours afterward Sunday as she went back through the debris for belongings. Bricks lay scattered about, alongside their possessions and furniture.
“The first thing I wanted to do was get all the pictures,” she said. Across the street, where the Bullards kept farm equipment in sheds, one shed was blown in amid twisted metal. Two grain silos were blown over.
“It’s a horrible tragedy. But all this stuff can be replaced,” she said. “We can’t replace each other. We’re extremely lucky. My dad is lucky to be alive.”
Reeves reported from Albany, Georgia, and Farrington from Adel, Georgia. Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Bill Cormier in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.