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The death toll is expected to rise as authorities continue recovery efforts in Lee County, Alabama, after the deadliest tornado outbreak in years.
USA TODAY

BEAUREGARD, Ala. – First responders aided by drones and search dogs hunted for survivors Monday after a devastating tornado killed at least 23 people, smashed homes and toppled power lines and a massive steel cell tower.

The tornado Sunday was part of a powerful storm system that also ripped through parts of Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. The National Weather Service in Tallahassee confirmed the system spawned tornadoes in Leon County, Florida, and Cairo, Georgia.

In Alabama, Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said dozens were injured and the death toll could rise in this rural community less than 10 miles from sprawling Auburn University. 

“It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and just scraped the ground,” Jones said. “There are slabs where homes normally stood. There is debris everywhere.”

Jones said at least two children were among those killed. He said the primary focus for Monday was search and rescue. Drones with infrared capabilities that can detect heat were surveying the damage looking for people who were trapped.

“This hurts my heart,” he said. “It’s extremely upsetting to me to see these people hurting like this and families who have lost loved ones. This is a very tight-knit community. These people are tough, resilient people. It’s knocked them down, but they’ll be back.”

The storms were the nation’s deadliest tornado outbreak in six years, since May 20, 2013, when a tornado killed 24 people in Oklahoma, the Storm Prediction Center said. Last year, tornadoes killed only 10 Americans, the fewest since unofficial records began in 1875.

in Beauregard, Jan Murphy’s home escaped damage Sunday. But the 26-year resident said she didn’t have to go far to see destruction.

“The weather got bad, but it wasn’t like what they had,” she said.  “And then just a quarter mile down the road, everything’s gone.”

More: 2018 was an all-time record quiet year for tornadoes in the U.S.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey expanded a state of emergency statewide. She said state emergency officials were working to provide assistance and said she was praying for everyone affected by the tragedy. President Donald Trump also tweeted condolences to victims and their families.

“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,” Trump tweeted. “@GovIvey, one of the best in our Country, has been so informed. She is working closely with FEMA (and me!).”

Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said Sunday’s victims ranged in age from under 10 into the 70s. He said he had to call in help from the state because there were more bodies than his office could handle.

More: Tornado in Columbus, Mississippi, leads to first tornado death of 2019

The National Weather Service said the twister was at least EF-3 in strength (with winds of 136-165 mph) and was a half-mile wide or more.

The East Alabama Medical Center said it had received more than 40 patients and that others were sent to surrounding hospitals. Harris said at least two people were in critical condition.

“These families have lost everything they have,” Jones said.

A warning had been issued for the deadly tornado in Lee County about 20 minutes before it hit, said Bryan Wood, a meteorologist at Assurant. And for tornadoes in general in that area, the Storm Prediction Center had given a head’s-up about 90 minutes prior to touchdown. 

Opelika Animal Hospital, a few miles north of here, began boarding animals free of charge following the Sunday storm. Gary Hunt, a veterinarian, said volunteers quickly brought in five animals, some of them injured.

“In a situation like this, we’re trying to help the people so they don’t need to be worried about their pets,” he said. “They need to be worried about themselves and their families. If we can take the burden off them, we’re glad to do it.”

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In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in three counties, promising  “swift action” to aid recovery efforts. In Grady County, Cairo Mayor Booker Gainor said a tornado struck just off the downtown area, damaging dozens of homes and businesses. There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries, but Gainor said crews responded to several residents who were trapped in their damaged homes.

At the Cairo IGA, customers and employees huddled together on Aisle 6 in the middle of the store when the storm hit. The tornado ripped off part of the roof and sheared the bricks off one exterior wall.

“You could feel the building shaking,” said closing manager Gabriel Lewis. “There was a bunch of wind blowing in the doors. … It was really rough.”

In Talbot County, several minor injuries were reported and a few buildings were damaged, emergency management spokesperson Ann Erenheim said. 

In South Carolina, about 150 people hunkered down at the Red Bank Baptist Church in Lexington County during Sunday services. Children sang “Jesus Loves Me” as the storm howled. A column in the front of the building was toppled and another was damaged.

The region was expected to get a reprieve from the winds in coming days. But colder air will sweep into the Southeast behind the severe weather, AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said. Temperatures could drop into the 30s southward to central Georgia and across most of Alabama.

Vitale reported from Alabama, Bacon and Rice from McLean, Va. Contributing:Steve Arnold and Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser; Kristin Lam, USA TODAY; Grace Pateras and Jeff Burlew, Tallahassee Democrat; The Associated Press

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/03/04/alabama-tornado-aftermath-workers-search-missing/3053092002/


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