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Monday September 25th, 2017 11:54PM

Quick decisions meant life or death in Southeastern storms

By The Associated Press
  Contact Editor

As an apparent tornado bore down on them, seven people in a mobile home in southeast Alabama made a life-or-death decision: Three ran into one bathroom for shelter and four ran in the opposite direction to another room seeking safety.

The three, including Lawana Henrich, survived without a scratch, according to Coroner Robert Byrd. But a big hardwood tree that slammed into the mobile home killed the four others, including Henrich's daughter and sister, Byrd said.

The tree toppled over during a wave of severe weather that brought heavy rain and strong winds to the Southeast, and it couldn't have hit in a worse spot when it fell Monday night near Rehobeth, Alabama.

"It was dead center," Byrd said. "You think, 'What's the chance of four people being so close in one area?' But they were."

Those four, a woman in Georgia, and a man who drowned in the Florida Panhandle died as a line of severe thunderstorms moved across the Southeastern United States from Texas.

Teams of surveyors were headed out Tuesday to assess apparent tornado damage at three sites in southeastern Alabama and southwestern Georgia, said Mark Wool, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, Florida.

Wool said authorities believe a tornado is responsible for damage that left the four people dead in Alabama, but he said the weather service won't be able to say for sure until experts visit the site.

Byrd, coroner in Houston County, Alabama, said Michelle Lewis, 53, died along with her niece, 27-year-old Amanda Blair. Lewis was Henrich's sister and Blair was Henrich's daughter, Byrd said; both victims lived in the trailer where they died, he said.

Byrd said the storm also killed two family friends, Terina Brookshire, 51, of Hartford, Alabama, and Carla Lambart, 53, who was originally from Opp, Alabama.

Byrd said Henrich, her husband and another man survived without injuries. Lawana Henrich saw a weather alert on television and heard the roar of a storm, and then told the others to seek shelter, he said.

"She said it was just a matter of seconds when that tree fell," Byrd said.

In Florida, the Walton County Sheriff's Office said the body of William Patrick Corley, 70, was found Monday afternoon following flooding near the Shoal River in Mossy Head. Authorities said Corley's car was partially submerged and his body was floating face-down nearby.

The sheriff's office said Corley's death was under investigation, but no foul play was suspected.

In Georgia, Albany Fire Chief Ron Rowe said one woman died as the result of an approximately 1-mile-wide "violent" storm that swept through the area about 11 p.m. Monday, 30 minutes or so after a tornado warning had been issued. Rowe said he did not have details on her death, and her identity has not been released.

In addition to the death, Rowe said more than 1,000 homes were damaged, including four that caught fire. He says the storm also knocked down multiple trees and that it may take four or five days to remove all of the debris.

It was the second episode of heavy rain within days for some areas. An area stretching from coastal Mississippi through eastern Georgia received more than 4 inches of rain Monday, according to radar estimates. Parts of southern Mississippi and southwest Alabama have received more than 8 inches of rain since Saturday.

Though rivers along the Gulf Coast were rising rapidly Monday, only minor flooding was predicted.

Rains in recent weeks have eased drought conditions across parts of the Southeast, according to reports from the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Despite the rain and storms, large parts of north Alabama and north Georgia remain in "exceptional drought" — the most severe category — according to the center's most recent report on the drought issued last week. A new report is due out Thursday.

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