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Storms strike college, leaves trail of damage across South

JACKSONVILLE, Ala. – The dawning of the day Tuesday revealed widespread damage after a night of severe weather in the Deep South, with a college campus shattered by an apparent tornado and thousands of buildings and vehicles damaged by the hail as big as baseballs.

The area around Jacksonville State University was one of the worst affected as the storms swept across the South, part of a large system that prompted tornado warnings on Monday in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

Using sofa cushions for protection, Richard brasher hid in the bath with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren when the storm passed near the college. The roar was frightening, said brasher, 60.

“I thought we were gone,” he said. “It happened so quickly.”

Several shelters opened, schools were closed, trees and power lines were down, and Jacksonville State advised people to avoid travelling in the vicinity of campus Tuesday morning. Most of the students were away for spring break.

A part of the roof was ripped off by the nursing school and Pete Mathews Coliseum, the basketball arena. Pieces of cut and bent metal covered the ground, along with the insulation that looked like yellow cotton candy.

To the west in Cullman, the many car dealers were full of cars and trucks that no longer had windows. The sheriff shared a photo of a prison bombed by hail, but said that the prisoners were fine.

Schools were closed in several counties as a result of damage. Alabama Power Co. said more than 9,000 homes and businesses were without electricity.

Forecasters had warned that the storm would pose a threat to more than 29 million people, raising the risk of strong tornadoes, damaging winds and hail the size of tennis balls.

Cities in the north of Alabama reported power outages and the National Weather Service in Huntsville reported at least three confirmed tornadoes in the area.

Officials suspect a tornado was to blame for the damage in Jacksonville, where brasher said he was standing in the hall near the kitchen windows exploded.

With electrical transformers exploding and trees crashing down all around, brasher said, it felt like the wind picked up and shook the whole house.”

“We were scared to death. It blew the paint off my house,” brasher said.

The National Weather Service said that five teams were in the Alabama assessment of storm damage.

Forecasters say, it would be a tough day for cleaning up. Highs were predicted in the lower 50s, and wind gusts as strong as 30 km / h were likely to be, along with the rain. Dense fog enveloped some areas Tuesday morning.

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Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama. Mallory Moench in Montgomery, Alabama; and Jeff Martin and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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