At least 23 lives lost as tornadoes leave trail of ‘catastrophic’ damage in Alabama

A tornado roared in southeast Alabama and killed at least 23 people and injured several others on Sunday, part of a severe storm system that caused catastrophic damage and unleashed other Southeast tornadoes.

“Unfortunately our toll, as far as fatalities, does stand at 23 at the current time,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told WRBL-TV of the death toll. He said that two people were in intensive care.

Drones flying high above equipped with heat-seeking technology had scanned the area for survivors but the hazardous conditions halted the search late Sunday, Jones said. “The devastation is incredible,” he added. An intense ground search would resume Monday morning.

Jones said the tornado traveled straight down a large road in the rural community of Beauregard and that the path of damage and destruction appeared to be around half a mile wide. He said single-family homes and mobile homes were completely anihilated, adding some homes were reduced to slabs. He had told reporters earlier that several people were taken to hospitals, some with “very serious injuries.”

Bill Harris, Lee County Coroner, told The Associated Press that he had to call the state to help because there were more bodies than his four-person office could handle. Late Sunday, the National Weather Service confirmed a tornado with at least an F3 rating and a track at least half a mile (.8 kilometers) wide caused Alabama’s deadly destruction. Although the statement did not give precise estimates of wind, typically F3 storms are measured at wind speeds between 158-206 mph (254-331 km / h). Dozens of emergency responders rushed to join the search and rescue efforts in hard-hit Lee County after what forecasters said they thought was a large Sunday afternoon tornado, unleashed by a powerful storm system that also slashed its way across parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.

Radar and video footage showed what looked like a large tornado crossing the area near Beauregard shortly after 2 p.m. on Sunday, said meteorologist Meredith Wyatt with the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service.

“It appears it stayed on the ground for at least a mile and maybe longer,” Jones said to the AP.

After dark on Sunday, the rain had paused and pieces of metal debris and tree branches littered roadways in Beauregard. Two sheriff’s vehicles blocked reporters and others from reaching the worst-hit area. Power seemed to be out in many places.

President Donald Trump tweeted late Sunday about the event, “To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: Please be careful and safe. … To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!”

Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said about 150 first responders had immediately jumped in to join the search through the debris after the storm struck in Beauregard. At least one trained dog could be seen with search crews as a number of ambulances and emergency vehicles, lights flashing, arrived to the area.

No deaths had been confirmed Sunday evening from storm-damaged Alabama counties outside Lee County, said Gregory Robinson, spokesman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. But he said first responders were still surveying damage in several counties in the southwestern part of the state.

In rural Talbotton, Georgia, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Atlanta, a handful of people were hurt by either powerful straight-line winds or a tornado that apparently destroyed several mobile homes and damaged other structures, said Leigh Ann Erenheim, director of the Talbot County Emergency Management Agency.

“The last check I had was between six and eight injuries,” Erenheim stated in a phone interview. “From what I understand it was minor injuries, though one fellow did say his leg might be broken.”

She said searches of destroyed homes and structures had turned up no serious injuries or deaths there.

Henry Wilson of the Peach County Emergency Management Agency near Macon in central Georgia said a barn had been wiped out and trees and power poles had been snapped, leaving many in the area without electricity.

Authorities said a tornado was also confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle late Sunday afternoon. A portion of Interstate 10 on the Panhandle was blocked in one direction for a time in Walton County in the aftermath, said Don Harrigan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.

“There’s a squall line moving through the area,” Harrigan explained to AP. “And when you have a mature line of storms moving into an area where low level winds are very strong, you tend to have tornadoes developing. It’s a favorable environment for tornados.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this terrible weather event.

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