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The latest on the tornado that struck Selma, Ala.


A large and powerful tornado hit central Alabama this afternoon. It moved across the city of Selma and caused extensive damage from one end of town to the other. Rescue crews are just now getting to some of the hardest-hit areas, and they're trying to assess how bad the destruction is. Reporter Kyle Gassiott of Troy Public Radio in Selma joins us now. Kyle, tell us exactly where you are and what you're seeing.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: Well, Juana, I'm in downtown, just blocks away from the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge. This was the bridge where protesters marching for voting rights were beaten by Alabama state troopers on a day known as Bloody Sunday in 1965. Now, usually, when you drive down the street, you get a sense of this history. And that feeling is still here today, but it's obvious that some of those historic buildings have sustained damage. I'm seeing a lot of downed trees. The police and work crews had to cut power lines so I and others could drive downtown. There is extensive damage to buildings. A metal roof of a building had just been blown across the street, and there are broken windows and debris strewn everywhere. And this particular area isn't the hardest hit. I haven't been able to get to other areas yet, with all the debris, but the damage is breathtaking.

SUMMERS: As you mentioned, it's obviously pretty hard to get around in Selma right now. But have you had the opportunity to talk with anyone about what's happened?

GASSIOTT: Yes. I stopped by Edgewood Elementary School, not far from downtown. And I got there just as the last of the kids were getting picked up. And I spoke with Principal Margaret Jones. I asked her how they got the young kids through the tornado, how they tried to keep them calm, and this is what she said.

MARGARET JONES: We did lots of hugs. I even gave out some kisses today. And we're just holding and hugging and comforting and talking through this experience because we practice our weather drills all the time. However, we've never had to use a protocol like we've had to use it today.

GASSIOTT: Jones said some of the parents came to school to try and get their kids before the tornado hit, and they ended up sheltering these parents with the kids at school. She said all the kids are OK. In fact, the Selma superintendent of schools tweeted that all the kids who were in class in the district came through the tornado OK. And it's worth pointing out that, back in 2007, a tornado hit Enterprise High School, about two hours from here. It killed nine people and injured at least eight others. So many school districts in Alabama learned from what happened then, and they often dismiss classes early or cancel them altogether.

SUMMERS: Certainly some good news there. So this storm system - it was well forecast, and meteorologists had warned of the possibility of tornadoes today. Did the intensity of these storms just catch officials off guard?

GASSIOTT: Yeah. Yeah, Juana. Some of the TV forecasters say this system that moved across Alabama, quote, "overperformed." And you could hear them discuss that as part of their live coverage. I heard one weather forecaster saying wow a lot this afternoon and using words like nasty to describe the storm. One forecaster said the tornado was staying down like Elmer's glue had stuck it to the ground. And it's clear they just weren't expecting a tornado this big. It was estimated to be a mile wide and was on the ground for a long time. You know, usually, in January, if there are tornadoes, they tend to be smaller and weaker and short-lived. But we'll get a clearer sense in the coming days how strong this tornado was once the National Weather Service is able to get out and do its analysis. This is one of the best reasons that forecasters say you should always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

SUMMERS: Indeed. Before I let you go, very quickly, the community there - how is it holding up?

GASSIOTT: Well, today, I saw city officials, crossing guards, and what looked to be civilians directing traffic and getting people the help they need. And if that's any indication, I would say the community is pulling together even as they still assess the damage and determine just what happened.

SUMMERS: That is Kyle Gassiott of Troy Public Radio, joining us from Selma, Ala. Kyle, thank you so much.

GASSIOTT: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kyle Gassiott

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