The search resumed Monday for victims of a vicious tornado outbreak that ripped across the South on Sunday killing at least 23 people in Alabama.
“I’m still thanking God I’m among the living,” said John Jones, who has lived most of his life in Beauregard, the southern Alabama community that was devastated by a tornado.
The violent storms left debris strewn across southern Alabama and Georgia, the Florida Panhandle and into parts of South Carolina.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office told local media that no fewer than 23 people were killed and more than 50 people were hurt when a tornado roared through Beauregard, a community of about 10,000 people some 60 miles east of Montgomery, shortly after 2 p.m. CST.
Lee County coroner Bill Harris said three children are among the dead: a 6-year-old, a 9-year-old who died at the hospital and a 10-year-old, the New York Times reported.
The National Weather Service said Monday that two tornadoes hit southern Lee County. The damage from one of them indicated it was an EF4 tornado with winds of 170 mph – the strongest twister to hit the United States since April 29, 2017, when an EF4 tornado hit Canton, Texas.
Sunday was also the deadliest day for tornadoes in the U.S. since May 20, 2013.
(PHOTOS: Deep South Tornado Outbreak)
Sheriff Jay Jones said at a news conference Monday morning that the number of missing people was in the double digits. He added, however, that some of those may be people who left the area and haven’t contacted family members.
“It’s extremely upsetting to me to see these people hurting like this and the families who have lost loved ones,” Jones said. “This is a very tight-knit community. These people are tough. They’re resilient people, and it’s knocked them down. But they’ll be back.”
“It hurts my heart to see this,” he added.
Jones also said the devastation is shocking.
“It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and just scraped the ground,” he said. “There are slabs where homes formerly stood, debris everywhere, trees snapped, whole forested areas where trees are snapped and lying on the ground.”
Kathy Carson, Lee County’s EMA director said, “This is the worst natural disaster that has ever occurred in Lee County.”
A makeshift morgue was set up in a parking lot and medical examiners from other locations were coming to assist in identifying the victims.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said she would extend the current state of emergency to provide state resources for areas damaged by the storms.
“Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives in the storms that hit Lee County today,” Ivey said in a tweet. “Praying for their families & everyone whose homes or businesses were affected.”
President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday, “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.” He added that Gov. Ivey is working closely with FEMA.
About 3:20 p.m. CST, the NWS issued a tornado emergency after a large and destructive tornado was confirmed near Smiths Station, also in Lee County.
Smiths Station Mayor Bubba Copeland told The Weather Channel that at least 12 houses were flattened.
“We have a lot of mobile homes turned upside down,” Copeland said.
No deaths or serious injuries were reported in Smiths Station.
Copeland said Lee County schools are canceled Monday because “several huge holes are on top of the (elementary) school.” Schools will also be closed again on Tuesday.
The storm also destroyed the Buck Wild Saloon, damaged a gas station and toppled a cell phone tower across U.S. 280.
Jonathan Clardy told the Associated Press he and his family hunkered down in their Beauregard trailer as the tornado ripped the roof off.
“All we could do is just hold on for life and pray. It’s a blessing from God that me and my young’uns are alive.”
Julie Morrison and her husband sought shelter in their bathtub as the storm lifted the house and tossed into nearby woods, AP reported.
“We knew we were flying because it picked the house up,” Morrison said. She credited their survival on the shower’s fiberglass enclosure and added that her son-in-law later dug them out.
The Lee County storm warnings were two of several tornado warnings issued for Alabama and Georgia on Sunday afternoon.
Reports said multiple homes were damaged in Dupree, Alabama, south of Dothan. Other reports said the airport and a fire station were damaged in Eufaula, Alabama.
More than 10,000 homes and businesses still had no electricity as of 8 a.m. Monday, according to poweroutage.us. That had dropped to less than 3,000 by 11:30 a.m.
“Much colder air is pushing into the South from the Midwest, and that will make conditions even worse for those without power into midweek,” weather.com meteorologist Christopher Dolce said. Parts of Alabama and Georgia will see low temperatures in the 20s and low 30s each morning Tuesday through Thursday.”
Some 30 miles north of Tallahassee, the town of Cairo and its 9,500 residents suffered a direct hit from a tornado. Shortly after, authorities reported widespread damage in the town, but no injuries or deaths were reported.
Speaking with Cairo Mayor Booker Gainor, Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeffrey Burlew tweeted that dozens of structures were damaged or destroyed and some residents were trapped in their homes after the storm struck the town Sunday night.
“It’s pretty bad,” Gainor told the Democrat. “We have a lot of trees down, debris and power lines. We have trees completely through houses. You would think a hurricane came after this, the way it looks.”
The National Weather Service on Monday confirmed that a tornado struck the town. A 102-mph wind gust was recorded on the tornado’s path, the NWS said.
Grady County EMA Director Richard Phillips told WCTV it appeared 500 to 1,000 homes and businesses were affected by the tornado.
Several towns in Georgia reported damage earlier Sunday from several tornadoes that were confirmed on radar by the NWS.
In the town of Talbotton, located some 35 miles northeast of Columbus, several people were injured when a high-end EF2 tornado was spawned, Talbot County Emergency Management Agency director Leigh Ann Erenheim told the Associated Press.
“The last check I had was between six and eight injuries,” Erenheim said in a phone interview with the AP. “From what I understand it was minor injuries, though one fellow did say his leg might be broken.”
Social media users shared reports of damage in Perry, Georgia.
Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese said trees were down and some houses were damaged, the Macon Telegraph reported.
While following the storm, Peach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shane Brooks told the Macon Telegraph he was nearly hit directly by the tornado as he drove down Duke Road in Byron.
“It was moving so fast I didn’t have time do anything but just sit there and hold on,” he told the Telegraph. “It was not something I would want to experience again.”
Crawford County Fire Chief Randall Pate said a tornado destroyed four homes. Pate also reported one injury: a woman whose ankle was broken when her home was damaged.
Following the storms, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency for Talbot, Grady and Harris counties.
The NWS confirmed that an EF2 tornado struck the area of Baum in Leon County on Sunday.
The Leon County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post that at least 10 homes in the community have substantial damage, and five of those were completely destroyed. At least two people were taken to a hospital.
The NWS also confirmed an EF1 tornado touched down in the Jackson County town of Alford, about 70 miles northwest of Tallahassee.
Jackson County Emergency Management Director Rodney Andreasen told WCTV the tornado damaged three homes, including ripping the side off one of the houses.
An electrical substation and six homes were damaged in the city of Quincy in Gadsden County, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.
The storm also caused a tree to crash into a home in Gadsden County where a family of four was. Two rooms were destroyed but no one was injured, WCTV reported.
A radar-confirmed tornado spread debris across Interstate 10 in Walton County, the AP reported. The eastbound lanes of the interstate had to be closed for cleanup.
Storms caused numerous reports of damage in and around Columbia Sunday night. The NWS said Monday that damage surveys indicated three tornadoes struck the Midlands area of the state.
The storm caused damage to a church in Lexington and ripped a roof off a home and blew recreational vehicles onto their sides nearby. The damage was consistent with a tornado, the NWS said.
The front of the Red Bank Baptist Church in Lexington was damaged by the storm.
Around 150 adults and children were at the church for Sunday night services when the storm hit, the State reports. Children sang “Jesus Loves Me” as they huddled with adults in a long hallway.
The Columbia Police Department tweeted a photo of a tree that had fallen on a house north of downtown. Trees also fell on cars downtown, the State reported.
The NWS confirmed that an EF1 tornado struck north of downtown. In the Columbia area, at least three tornadoes were in progress Sunday night, the NWS said.
In Edgefield County, seven people were injured when the storm hit a gas station in Meriwether, north of Augusta, Georgia, WRDW reported. The NWS said the damage here was also consistent with a tornado.
Trees were knocked down in North Augusta and Aiken.