BEAUREGARD, ALABAMA – 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.
“The devastation is incredible,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told the local CBS affiliate.
“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 6 years old, with the toll likely to rise.
“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.
The swath of destruction left was a quarter mile (0.4 km) 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 km) 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.
One bar in the town appeared to have lost its roof and most of its walls, in images screened by MSNBC, while a cell tower was completely destroyed.
“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.
U.S. 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.”
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 p.m., the NWS said. The warning for the second came less than an hour later, at 3:38 p.m.
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 mph (218 to 266 kph).
Around a dozen tornadoes were reported to have touched down in Alabama and Georgia in the course of the day, CNN reported.