NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Homes and businesses in Alabama were damaged and some even leveled Thursday as a tornado touched down near Birmingham, leaving residents to contend with piles of debris and loss of electricity and authorities to assess the severity of the devastation.

Forecasters warned of the threat of a possible outbreak of tornadoes as severe thunderstorms moved through a swath of the Southeast. Days after a similar bout of destructive weather, officials in several states urged residents to brace for hail, powerful winds and possible flash floods.

The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, urging residents facing the most imminent danger to “take cover now.” Forecasters warned of storms with a high risk of tornadoes, as well as flash floods, in other portions of those states, as well as in Tennessee and Mississippi. A tornado watch was in effect until 8 p.m.

The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado touched down shortly after 1 p.m. in an area southwest of Birmingham and warned that it was moving toward the city and its suburbs.

In and around Birmingham, homes were destroyed by the tornado. Police in Pelham, Alabama, a suburb south of Birmingham, said some roads were left impassable by downed trees and utility lines. More than 16,000 customers had lost electricity, according to PowerOutage.us. The outages were centered in Shelby and Bibb counties, just south of Birmingham.

“Our priority at the moment is identifying those citizens in need of emergency medical attention,” John Samaniego, the sheriff in Shelby County, said in a statement, adding that there had been “significant tornado damage,” including residences that had been destroyed.

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He added, “This search and outreach effort will continue throughout the night and into the early morning hours.”

Officials warned residents to prepare as schools and government offices closed early. “Stay home, stay safe, stay informed,” Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, said on Twitter. In Birmingham, the city government opened safe rooms and put up barricades in areas prone to flooding.

On Thursday morning, Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama declared a state of emergency in more than 20 counties and pressed residents to “to closely monitor the weather system,” especially if their areas were under high risk.

The threat of destructive weather returned a week after powerful storms swept through Mississippi and Alabama before moving on to Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. In January, a tornado in Alabama led to the death of a 14-year-old boy in Fultondale, a suburb of Birmingham; he had been sheltering in a basement with his family members when a tree fell on the house.

Meteorologists acknowledged the likelihood that residents were fatigued by the possibility of dangerous storms returning so soon but urged them not to dampen their vigilance.

“High and moderate risks are not issued because someone ‘feels’ like it,” the National Weather Service in Birmingham said in a social media post. “There is a reason. Shear is there, instability is there, moisture, lift, it’s all there. Will they work out just right and give us those strong and terrible storms? Well, we’ll see. But all the ingredients are there to do just that.”

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In 2020, there were almost 1,000 tornadoes and 76 tornado deaths in the United States, according to preliminary counts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“You really need to take action when the warnings are issued and not wait until you can see the danger,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the National Weather Service.

Bunting said he recommends that people have multiple ways to receive weather warnings, such as using a weather radio for backup, in case they are unable to use their cellphone. He also recommends people map out safe places to shelter, such as the lowest floor in their home and away from windows and exterior walls.

The National Weather Service suggests people shelter in closets, bathrooms or an interior hall. Those living in mobile homes should find a sturdier building or storm shelter. If outside, people should locate a nearby ditch or a low spot and lie flat with their heads covered for protection.

Officials also urged residents to have emergency supplies on hand, including a first aid kit, nonperishable food, water and batteries.

“In many areas, there will be more than one round of storms,” Bunting said. “So, you’ve got to keep your guard up until all the threats have passed.”