March 3, 2019 8:44 pm
Updated: March 6, 2019 2:50 pm

At least 23 dead after U.S. south hit with tornadoes, severe storms

WATCH: 'We were one of the lucky ones' says Alabama tornado survivor

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

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“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 added that two people were in intensive care. Three of the dead were children, ages 6, 9 and 10, County Coroner Bill Harris told an afternoon news conference. Family members identified two of the young victims.

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Drones flying overheard equipped with heat-seeking devices had scanned the area for survivors but the dangerous conditions halted the search late Sunday, Jones said. An intense ground search resumed Monday morning.

With daybreak, volunteers used chain saws to clear paths for emergency workers, and at the R&D Grocery, people were constantly asking each other if they were OK.

“I’m still thanking God I’m among the living,” said John Jones, who has lived most of his life in Beauregard, an unincorporated community of roughly 10,000 people about 60 miles east of Montgomery near the Georgia state line.

WATCH: Trump says U.S. mourns victims of ‘historic’ Alabama tornado

Jones said the apparent twister traveled straight down a key local artery in Beauregard and that the path of damage and destruction appeared at least a half mile wide. He said single-family homes and mobile homes were destroyed, adding some homes were reduced to slabs. He had told reporters earlier that several people were taken to hospitals, some with “very serious injuries.”

“All we could do is just hold on for life and pray,” said Jonathan Clardy, who huddled with his family inside their Beauregard trailer as the tornado ripped the roof off.

“It’s a blessing from God that me and my young’ns are alive.”

He added: “Everybody in Beauregard is a real close-knit family. Everybody knows everybody around here. Everybody is heartbroken.”

Lee County Coroner Bill Harris told The Associated Press that he had to call in help from the state, because there were more bodies than his four-person office can handle.

WATCH: Alabama authorities say everyone accounted for after deadly tornado, death toll remains at 23

Dozens of emergency responders rushed to join search and rescue efforts in hard-hit Lee County after what forecasters said they think was a large tornado touched down Sunday afternoon, unleashed by a powerful storm system that also slashed its way across parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

 

WATCH: Alabama residents react to deadly tornado that ripped through Lee County

Radar and video evidence showed what looked like a large tornado crossing the area near Beauregard shortly after 2 p.m. 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 told the AP.

After nightfall Sunday, the rain had stopped 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 appeared to be out in many places.

READ MORE: 5 dead after tornado, flooding hits central US

President Donald Trump tweeted late Sunday, “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!”

In a statement Monday, Trump said the situation in Alabama was “terrible” and that he had directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide immediate assistance to the state. “They’re in there in full force and whatever we can do we’re doing,” he said. “It’s at times like this it’s more important than ever to be close with the ones we love and to cherish our friends and our family and to unite as one nation.”

Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said about 150 first responders had quickly jumped in to efforts to search the debris after the storm struck in Beauregard. At least one trained canine could be seen with search crews as numerous ambulances and emergency vehicles, lights flashing, converged on the area.

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

WATCH: Severe thunderstorms cause damage near Harris and Muscogee counties, Georgia

Numerous tornado warnings were posted across parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday afternoon as the powerful storm system raced across the region. Weather officials said they confirmed other tornadoes around the region by radar alone and would send teams out early Monday to assess those and other storms.

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

Televised broadcast news footage showed smashed buildings with rooftops blown away, cars overturned and debris everywhere. Trees all around had been snapped bare of branches.

WATCH: Video shows the extent of damage in Alabama following tornado

“The last check I had was between six and eight injuries,” Erenheim said 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 damaged 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 destroyed and trees and power poles had been snapped, leaving many in the area without power.

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Authorities in southwest Georgia are searching door-to-door in darkened neighborhoods after a possible tornado touched down in the rural city of Cairo, about 33 miles (53 kilometers) north of Tallahassee, Florida, on Sunday evening. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.

Authorities said a tornado was 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 told 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 favourable environment for tornados.”

The threat of severe weather continued into the late-night hours. A tornado watch was in effect for much of eastern Georgia, including Athens, Augusta and Savannah. The tornado watch also covered a large area of South Carolina, including the cities of Charleston and Columbia.

Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Ala., Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., Bill Cormier in Atlanta, and Ryan Kryska in New York contributed to this report.

-With files from Reuters

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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