More than 100 rescuers are digging through rubble in rural Alabama in search of victims of a half-mile-wide tornado that killed at least 23 people over the weekend and destroyed mobile homes.
The tornado, which primarily devastated Lee County, near the Georgia border, was the deadliest U.S. tornado in six years. And the death toll is expected to rise as first responders continue to scour the devastation left in its wake Monday, according to Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones. He said people in the “double digits” are still missing, and the county coroner said that number could be as high as 20.
"It looks like someone took a giant knife and scraped the ground. There are slabs where homes formerly stood," Jones said in a press conference early Monday morning. The tornado’s debris field spread out over hundreds of yards, and the contents of one home were located a half-mile away.
Local media outlets have not yet reported the names of the people who died, but they range in age from children — one as young as 6 — to people in their 80s, according to AL.com. The county coroner, Bill Harris, told the Associated Press that he’s reaching out for help across the state to handle assessing the dead. Officials haven’t said how many people could be injured, but one hospital, the East Alabama Medical Center, was treating more than 40 patients with tornado-related injuries, according to NBC News.
“The devastation is incredible,” Jones said Sunday.
The storm’s damage may have been concentrated in Beauregard, a city in Lee County where numerous homes were destroyed, according to local media outlets. Some residents there may have only had five minutes of warning to seek cover and protect themselves from the massive storm, according to CNN. One photo shows a toppled cellphone tower lying across the highway in the nearby town of Smiths Station. The exact number of destroyed homes is still being assessed.
Officials haven’t yet said exactly how fast the tornado’s winds were moving, although the National Weather Service gave the tornado an EF3 rating, which typically comes with wind speeds of 136 -165 mph. Additionally, Sunday’s massive storm may have actually been two tornados hitting back-to-back, according to CNN.
Vinton Copeland, a Facebook user who describes himself as a pastor, posted a video of the aftermath and extensive destruction to his Facebook page Tuesday. The video shows homes completely gutted by the tornado, and debris scattered in the streets.
Lee County is home to nearly 162,000 residents. While the county is below Alabama’s average poverty rate, at nearly 18 percent, about 16.3 percent of all occupied housing units there are mobile homes. Nearly 2,000 people are still without power, according to Alabama Power. Officials will also survey damage in Macon and Barbour counties.
Deaths haven’t been reported in any other Alabama counties besides Lee County, according to the Associated Press, although other counties in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina received tornado warnings Sunday. CNN reported that nearly a dozen of those tornadoes touched down.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency, and President Donald Trump shared condolences — and a warning about subsequent storms — via Twitter late Sunday night.
“To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: Please be careful and safe. Tornadoes and storms were truly violent and more could be coming. To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!” Trump wrote in a tweet.
Cover image: Damage is seen from a tornado which killed at least 23 people in Beauregard, Alabama on March 4, 2019. (Photo by Tami Chappell / AFP) (Photo credit should read TAMI CHAPPELL/AFP/Getty Images)