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UPDATE: Death rate climbs following Alabama tornado. White House responds

Over eight thousand Selma residents woke up without power this morning, following a massive tornado strike. The website lists over eleven thousand residents of nearby Tallapoosa and Elmore counties are without electricity. Selma Mayor James Perkins says no fatalities have been reported, but several people were seriously injured. However, officials in nearby Autauga County report seven (updated) deaths following the storm. The situation in Selma was top of the agenda during yesterday’s White House briefing with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

“Okay, two quick things at the top. We’ve seen the breaking news of the damage in Selma. First, our hearts and thoughts go out to the Selma community and everyone impacted by the storm,” said.

Vice President Kamala Harris visited the historic Alabama city for its fifty seventh “bridge crossing jubilee.” The event was covered by APR student reporter Libby Foster and a link to her coverage can be found at the foot of this story. Jean-Pierre went on to address what help Selma can expect from the White House…

“Our team here is monitoring and assessing the situation and reaching out when appropriate to local and state officials to offer our support.”

Incident teams from the National Weather Service also spent the day assessing the damage from the storm system. Earlier this week, NWS forecaster Jason Holmes told APR how the agency uses field surveys and computer software to do their surveys, but eyewitness reports help a lot as well…

“We rely on the public and the media for reports. We gratefully appreciate these reports we utilize radar… we utilize all these tools and technologies,” said Holmes. “But, being able to piece together the full picture, every report counts.”

The National Weather Service also studies damage to buildings, power lines, and even cars in assessing the strength of a tornado. There are also university studies that provide guidelines on what tornado damage to buildings, power lines, cars and other structures looks like during a twister. Holmes says that’s important since not all damage from violent weather is automatically the result of a tornado.

“We have to discern between tornado damage and we call straight line wind damage. Some storms are capable of generating strong winds. But they may not necessarily swirl in the motion of a tornado.”

Holmes adds that insurance companies also rely on tornado confirmation reports from the National Weather Service in responding to customers who ask for compensation following a storm. He says in it’s in everyone’s best interests to report tornado damage to the agency as soon as possible…

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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