Storms sweep through South; 5 killed
By Emily Wagster Pettus & Jay Reeves
JACKSON, Miss. — A Mississippi woman who desperately tried to direct rescuers to her sinking vehicle after it skidded into a rain-swollen creek was among five people killed in storms across the South.
Jacqueline Williams, 52, was in the process of running a newspaper delivery route when her car slid off a road into a creek in her hometown of Florence before dawn Monday, authorities said. She dialed 911 from the car as it went down, said Rankin County Coroner David Ruth.
Ruth said Williams was trying to relay her location to a dispatcher as the car settled into the swirling waters.
“She was trying to tell the dispatcher where she was, and she could actually hear the sirens,” Ruth said.
The two lost contact, and Ruth said a swift-water recovery team later found Williams’ body in the creek outside the car.
Florence Police Chief Richard Thomas said the current where Williams died was fast and strong.
He said authorities got a call from a woman saying her car was being swept into the water. Authorities immediately began looking but couldn’t find her in time. Records from the county’s 911 center show the first call came at 4:35 a.m., responders were dispatched within 17 seconds and arrived at 4:42 a.m.
“It was really quick,” Thomas said.
Williams’ body was eventually recovered, and authorities pulled her small vehicle out of the water about three hours later.
Florence is a town of about 4,000 people. The chief described Williams and her family as “really good people.”
“Twenty-some-odd years ago, our two boys played baseball together,” Thomas said.
In the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Glendora, the mayor’s wife died Sunday when strong winds toppled a tree onto the couple’s house. Mayor Johnny B. Thomas was briefly hospitalized with injuries after his wife, Shirley, was killed, said town clerk Aquarius Simmons.
“She was a nice lady. Very sweet. Everybody loved her,” Simmons said of Shirley Thomas.
Two other people died earlier in Louisiana, and a woman died Monday in South Carolina after storms swept through the state.
Some schools in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama canceled or delayed the start of classes Monday so students wouldn’t travel in heavy rain or on flooded streets.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a statewide emergency declaration Monday before embarking on a trip to survey storm damage in two central and southern parishes.
Some of the heaviest rains fell in central Louisiana from Sunday into early Monday. C.S. Ross, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Shreveport, said nearly 8 inches of rain was reported in Grant Parish in the north central part of the state.
A tornado flipped a mobile home Sunday in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, killing a mother and her 3-year-old daughter, while on Monday a weather event that authorities also believed to be a tornado flipped a mobile home in Union County, South Carolina, killing one person, said Kim Bailey, administrative assistant to Union County Sheriff David Taylor. Authorities hadn’t identified the person as of Monday afternoon.
In Louisiana, the storm also brought hurricane-force winds, large hail and sparked flash flooding. Up to 6 inches of rain fell in some areas. Breaux Bridge is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Baton Rouge.
St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Maj. Ginny Higgins told The Associated Press that the tornado in Breaux Bridge touched down seconds after a warning was issued.
“It hit the trailer, flipped it and tore its side off,” Higgins said.
Higgins said 38-year-old Francine Gotch and 3-year-old Nevaeh Alexander were pronounced dead at the scene. Witnesses told KLFY-TV that the father was at the store when the storm hit and returned to find the bodies amid the splintered debris.
Relatives described those killed as a fun-loving pair who smiled frequently.
Nevaeh “was the sweetest little girl,” said Sheryle Rubin, who’s engaged to the girl’s uncle. “She was only 3 years old but was the smartest girl in the world. She would’ve started school in August.”