Rescuers in Alabama stepped up the search for survivors Monday after two back-to-back tornadoes ripped across the southern state, with the death toll of 23 expected to rise further.
“I would describe the damage that we have seen in the area as catastrophic,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said.
“It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and scraped the ground,” he said. “There are slabs where homes formerly stood, there is debris everywhere, trees are snapped, whole … forested areas are just snapped.”
“I cannot recall at least in the last 50 years … a situation where we have had this loss of life,” Jones said.
He said the death toll stood at 23, some of them children. One of the dead was just six years old.
Another young victim, Taylor Thornton, died while visiting a friend in Lee County. “She’s gone to heaven. She’s only eight years old. It feels not real,” her aunt Kay Thornton told NBC affiliate WSFA 12 before bursting into tears.
“We have several people who are still unaccounted for,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, we anticipate the number of fatalities may rise as the day goes on.”
Other people were hospitalized, some with “very serious injuries.”
Search operations for those still missing had to be halted on Sunday night due to hazardous conditions, but were renewed Monday morning with agencies from across the state and from neighboring Georgia joining the hunt.
Wrecked houses, downed trees
The swath of destruction left was a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) wide and stretched for the “several miles that it traveled on the ground,” according to Jones.
The powerful winds picked up a billboard from the Lee County Flea Market in Alabama and dumped it some 20 miles away, across the state line in Georgia, local media reported.
More than 6,000 homes were left without power in Alabama, according to PowerOutage.US, while 16,000 suffered outages in neighboring Georgia.
The search for missing people was focused in the area around Beauregard, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of the state capital Montgomery.
While the heavy rains that accompanied the high winds had relented overnight, many roads in the worst-hit areas were blocked by debris, hindering search efforts.
Residents in the town of Smith Station told local TV news crews of their shock at turning up to work to find their businesses destroyed, and seeing crying co-workers comforting one another.
Town resident Sam Cook was trying to enter his house when the tornado struck.
“It sounded like a race car coming. Like the Indy 500. It was in a rush. On a roll. All of a sudden it just attacked,” he told CBS affiliate News 3 of nearby Columbia, Georgia.
“I was getting out of the truck to go in the house. I had to go about 30 yards. I couldn’t run. The force of that wind — you couldn’t run. You just had to take steps to make yourself go,” he said.
One bar in the town had its roof and most of its walls torn off, while a cell phone tower was buckled and twisted by a roadside.
“My sister and niece have been under tornado watch and warnings all day in Montgomery … Prayers up for Alabama,” Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ava Duvernay tweeted Sunday.
President Donald Trump expressed his condolences to those affected and said on Twitter that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, “has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the Tornadoes.”
‘Take Cover Now!’
The National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a tornado warning for areas including Lee County on Sunday, calling on residents to: “TAKE COVER NOW! Move to a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows.”
The warning for the first twister was issued at 2:58 pm, the NWS said. The warning for the second came less than an hour later, at 3:38 pm.
NWS Birmingham said the first tornado to hit was “at least an EF-3 & at least 1/2 mi wide.”
The EF-3 designation — on a scale of 0 to 5 — means the tornado had winds of 136 to 165 miles (218 to 266 kilometers) per hour.
Around a dozen tornadoes were reported to have touched down in Alabama and Georgia in the course of the day, CNN reported.
Schools in the area were to remain closed on Tuesday and grief counselors would be on hand when they eventually reopened, schools superintendant James McCoy said.
“We’re trying to locate teachers, make sure they are okay and see if they need anything. We do know we have personnel that have lost houses,” McCoy said, quoted in local media.