Sheriff says more people are missing as weather system sparks flurry of tornadoes across south-eastern US on Sunday
At least 23 people, including children as young as six, have been killed and more are missing after at least two tornadoes struck in southeastern Alabama on Sunday, causing “catastrophic” damage, a county sheriff said, Agencies report.
The tornadoes were graded EF-3, meaning they produced wind speeds of between 158mph and 206mph.
Crews searched a trail of destruction several miles long and a quarter of a mile wide before pausing efforts overnight as conditions became too dangerous, said Lee county sheriff Jay Jones.
“The challenge is the sheer volume of the debris where all the homes were located,” Jones told CNN. “It’s the most I’ve seen that I can recall.”Advertisement
He told WRBL-TV families in the area had “lost everything they ever had”.
At least two tornadoes touched down in Lee county, with the first warning going out at 2.38 pm local time. Several reports were centered around the Smith Station area near Phenix City and the Alabama/Georgia line. Other reports came from the Beauregard area, where wind speeds were estimated at between 136mph and 165mph.
East Alabama Medical Center said it had received more than 50 patients as a result of the tornado and more were expected as emergency workers searched for survivors.
Lee county coroner Bill Harris at 8pm said victim ages ranged from children to adults in their 80s. He said none of the confirmed victims had been formally identified.
“We’re still got people being pulled out of rubble,” he said at 8pm on Sunday. “We’re going to be here all night.”
It is believed that youngest victim, aged six, was Armando Hernandez, who became separated from his mother in Beauregard when the tornado struck. His mother, Kayla Melton, appealed for information on Facebook, writing: ‘Please look for my baby, he’s six years old, his name is Armando Hernandez, he goes by AJ. Last seen on Lee Road 38. Anyone in the area please help me find him please!!!!!’
His death was later confirmed by friends and family on social media.
The death toll is more than double the number of people killed by tornadoes nationwide in 2018, when 10 people died, a record low.
Harris told how fire trucks were drafted in to take victims out of the danger zone unreachable by ambulances and that he had to use his paramedic skills at the fire station until more help arrived.
“This is a day of destruction for Lee county. We’ve never had a mass-fatality situation that I can remember like this in my lifetime,” Harris said. Some areas were still inaccessible, he added, suggesting the death toll could rise.
The destruction was caused by a severe weather system that crossed the US south-east in the afternoon, sparking tornadoes as it headed towards the Atlantic.
Donald Trump urged people to stay safe, tweeting that the tornadoes and storms “were truly violent and more could be coming”. The president added: “To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: please be careful and safe.”
Rita Smith, a spokeswoman for the Lee county emergency management agency, said: “We’ve got about 150 first responders out there. They are doing a phenomenal job.”
She said multiple homes had been destroyed or damaged in Beauregard, about 60 miles east of Montgomery, the state capital.
The storm left more than 40,000 customers in Alabama and Georgia without power, the Birmingham News reported, and temperatures looked set to fall to near freezing overnight.
“Colder air will sweep into the south-east behind the severe weather with temperatures dropping into the 30sF [1C] southward to central Georgia and across most of Alabama by Monday morning,” AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said. “Those without power who rely on electric heat need to find ways to say warm.”
News footage showed smashed buildings with rooftops blown away, cars overturned and debris everywhere. Trees all around had been snapped bare of branches.
The National Weather Service said it had confirmed a tornado by radar that toppled trees in a Florida Panhandle county, halting traffic on a stretch of Interstate 10 in one direction because of debris.
Meteorologist Don Harrigan with the Tallahassee office of the NWS said a tornado watch was in effect for much of Georgia, including Athens, Augusta and Savannah. The tornado watch also covers a large area of South Carolina, including the cities of Charleston and Columbia.