Montgomery: Rescuers tore through rubble and wreckage on Monday in a search for survivors amid homes torn from foundations, shredded metal dangling from battered trees and dead animals lying among debris after a powerful tornado ripped through southeast Alabama and killed at least 23 people, including children.
The trail of destruction from the Sunday tornado was at least a kilometre wide and overwhelmed rural Lee County's coroners' office, forcing it to call in help from the state. Volunteers used chain saws to help clear paths for emergency responders. At the R&D Grocery on Monday morning, residents were constantly asking each other if they were OK.
The death toll from the severe weather that hit the US deep south continues to rise.Credit:AP
"I'm still thanking God I'm among the living," said John Jones, who has lived most of his life in Beauregard, a tiny unincorporated community of roughly 10,000 people.
The Sunday tornado, which had winds that appeared to be around 257 kilometres per hour or greater, was part of a powerful storm system that also slashed its way across the Deep South, spawning numerous tornado warnings in parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said the twister travelled straight down a county road in the rural community of Beauregard reducing homes to slabs.
"It looks like someone almost just took a giant knife and scraped the ground," Jones said of the devastation during a Monday morning news conference.
Jones said children were among the dead, but he didn't know exactly how many. And he said the number of deaths may rise as the search continues. 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.
Levi Baker, who lives near the hard-hit area in Alabama, took a chain saw to help clear a path for ambulances and other first-responder vehicles. He said he saw bodies of dead people and dead animals.
A fallen telephone tower lies across US Route 280 highway in Lee County, Alabama after a tornado struck on Sunday.Credit:AP
He said some houses were demolished and trees were uprooted or snapped in half. One house was swept off its foundation and was sitting in the middle of the road.
"It was just destruction," Baker said. "There were mobile homes gone. Frames on the other side of the road."
Scott Fillmer was at home when the storm hit in Lee County.
"I looked out the window and it was nothing but black, but you could hear that freight train noise," Fillmer said.
The National Weather Service confirmed late Sunday a tornado with at least an F3 rating caused the destruction in Alabama. Although the statement did not give exact wind estimates, F3 storms typically are gauged at wind speeds up to 331kmh.
In a tweet late Sunday, President Donald Trump said: "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!"
Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said about 150 first responders had quickly jumped in to help 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.
School Superintendent Mack McCoy said some buses were damaged in the storm and winds tore through the roof of Smiths Station Elementary School.
Authorities in southwest Georgia were searching door-to-door in darkened neighborhoods after a possible tornado touched down in the rural city of Cairo, about 53 kilometres north of Tallahassee, Florida, on Sunday evening. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.
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