Rescuers are searching for survivors after the storm killed 9 people in the south of the country

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SELMA, ALA. — Rescuers scrambled Friday to find survivors after a tornado ripped through parts of Georgia and Alabama, killing at least nine people and severely damaging Selma, a flashpoint for the civil rights movement.

A better picture of the damage is expected to emerge later in the day as authorities survey the damaged landscape. At least 35 possible tornadoes were reported in several states, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The National Weather Service, which was working to confirm the tornado, said suspected tornado damage was reported in at least 14 counties in Alabama and five in Georgia.

Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were without power in both states, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages across the country.

One tornado cut a 20-mile (32-kilometer) path through two rural Alabama communities Thursday before the worst of the weather moved through Georgia on a track south of Atlanta.

Searchers in Autauga County found a body in the predawn hours near a home that was badly damaged, authorities said. The deaths brought the death toll to seven in the county about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Selma.

At least 12 people were taken to hospitals, said Ernie Baggett, Autauga County’s director of emergency management, as crews cut through fallen trees to search for survivors.

About 40 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, including several mobile homes that were blown up, he said.

“They weren’t just blown up,” he said. “They were blown up a long distance.”

In Selma, a city steeped in civil rights history, the city council met on the sidewalk using cellphone lights and declared a state of emergency.

A 5-year-old child who was riding in a car was killed when a tree fell in Buttes County in central Georgia, Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director James Stallings said. According to him, one of the parents, who was driving, was seriously injured.

Elsewhere, a state Department of Transportation worker also died while dealing with storm damage, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said. He did not provide further details.

Kemp surveyed some of the worst damage from the storm Friday by helicopter. In some areas, he said, rescue teams had to dig through destroyed houses to free trapped survivors.

“We know people who have been in homes where literally the whole house collapsed and they were under the crawl space,” Kemp told reporters.

The governor said the storm caused damage across the state, with the worst damage in Troup County near the Georgia-Alabama line, where dozens of homes were damaged and at least 12 people were hospitalized.

In Spaulding County, south of Atlanta, the storm hit as mourners gathered for a memorial service at Peterson Funeral Home in Griffin. About 20 people tried to take cover in a toilet and an office when a loud crash was heard as a large tree fell on the building.

“When we came out, we were in total shock,” said Sha-Mika Peterson-Smith, the funeral home’s chief operating officer. “We had heard everything, but we didn’t know how bad it was.”

She said the uprooted tree crashed right into the front of the building, destroying the screening room, lounge and front office. No one was hurt.

The tornado that hit Selma cut a wide path through downtown, where brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were flipped over, and power lines were down.

Columns of thick black smoke rose above the city from the fire. It is not yet known whether the storm caused the fire.

Selma Mayor James Perkins said there were no fatalities, but several people were seriously injured. Officials hoped to get an aerial view of the city on Friday.

“We have a lot of downed power lines,” he said. “The streets are very dangerous.”

Mattie Moore was among the Selma residents who picked up boxed meals offered by a downtown charity.

“Thank God we are here. It’s like what you see on TV,” Moore said of the destruction.

A city of about 18,000 people, Selma is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Montgomery, Alabama’s capital. It was the flashpoint of the civil rights movement when, on March 7, 1965, state troops brutally attacked black people marching nonviolently for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Malesha McVeigh captured video of a giant twister that turned black as it tore through home after home.

“He would get into the house and black smoke would go up,” she said. “It was very terrifying.”

Three factors — the natural La Niña weather cycle, warming in the Gulf of Mexico likely linked to climate change and an eastward shift in tornado activity over decades — combined to make Thursday’s tornado outbreak unusual and devastating, said Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University, who studies tornado trends.

La Nina, the cooling of parts of the Pacific Ocean that changes weather around the world, was a factor in the wavy jet that brought the cold front, Gensini said. But that’s not enough to spark a tornado. Another ingredient is moisture.

Air in the Southeast is usually fairly dry this time of year, but the dew point was twice normal, likely due to unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, which is likely affected by climate change, Gensini said. This moisture hit the cold front, causing terrible storms.

In Kentucky, the weather service confirmed that an EF-1 tornado touched down in Mercer County and said crews were surveying several other counties for damage.

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Martin reported from Woodstock, Georgia. Associated Press writer Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Sarah Broomfield in Silver Spring, Md.; Seth Borenstein in Denver; and photographer Butch Diehl of Selma, Alabama contributed to this report.

Rescuers are searching for survivors after the storm killed 9 people in the south of the country

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