Deadly storms kill 16, trigger tornado threat across U.S. South

A dangerous weekend weather system has killed at least 16 people in the U.S. South, as Georgia officials on Sunday reported a dozen fatalities and severe thunderstorms and tornadoes menaced several states.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared an emergency for seven counties in the south-central part of the state, warning that dangerous conditions persisted and could reach north to the Atlanta area.

"I urge all Georgians to exercise caution and vigilance in order to remain safe and prevent further loss of life or injuries," Deal said in a news release.

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Photos from the affected areas showed collapsed buildings, homes with roofs destroyed, toppled trees and fields littered with debris.

Eight deaths occurred in Cook County, Georgia, state emergency managers said in a statement, with local reports that a mobile home park was particularly hard hit.

First Baptist Church Adel, located in the county seat near the Florida-Georgia state line, was sheltering more than 50 people, said pastor Bill Marlette, who had just helped inform a family that two of their relatives were among the dead.

"There's a lot of hurting people right now," he said in a telephone interview. "There's just a sense of shock."

The deadly storms in Georgia, which also killed four people in Brooks and Berrien counties, followed a predawn tornado in Mississippi on Saturday that killed four people. Severe weather also injured more than 50 others and damaged about 480 homes in Mississippi, state officials said on Sunday.

The system prompted U.S. weather forecasters to issue a rare, "high risk" warning of severe storms threatening parts of southern Georgia, north and central Florida and Alabama on Sunday, the first such warning since 2014. South Carolina could also see severe weather.

"These could be the kind of tornados you don't want to mess with," said Rich Thompson, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

The system toppled trees and power lines in Georgia, northern Florida and Alabama on Sunday, the agency's website reported. Hail was sighted in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

In Alabama, some 29,000 power outages were reported as of Sunday afternoon, Alabama Power tweeted. Several thousand had also been without power in Mississippi, where utilities were working to restore service.

The severe weather was expected to last into Sunday evening. The system also may bring significant snowfall to parts of the U.S. Northeast on Monday into Tuesday, the NWS said.

On the west coast, heavy rains from a separate system drenched parts of Southern California on Sunday. Flash flooding and strong winds were expected, possibly triggering mudslides along canyon roads, downed trees and scattered power outages, the NWS said.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla., Additional reporting by Frank McGurty in New York and David Beasley in Atlanta; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Peter Cooney)