A tornado killed at least 23 people in southeast Alabama on March 3, part of a powerful storm system, which ravaged the Southeast and unleashed other tornadoes.
“Unfortunately our toll, as far as fatalities, does stand at 23 at the current time,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told WRBL-TV, adding that two people were in intensive care.
Rescue personnel flew drones with heat-seeking sensors to scan the area for survivors but the operation was cut short as conditions grew more perilous. A ground search would resume on March 4, according to Jones.
“The devastation is incredible,” Jones said.
The tornado tore down a country road in the rural community of Beauregard, destroying single-family and mobile homes along a path half a mile wide, Jones said, adding that some homes were reduced to slabs.
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said he had to call in help from the state after his four-person team was overwhelmed.
The National Weather Service (NWS) confirmed late on March 3 that the deadly Alabama tornado was rated F3, a category with wind speeds between 158-206 mph. The tornado crossed the area near Beauregard shortly after 2 p.m., according to NWS.
“It appears it stayed on the ground for at least a mile and maybe longer,” Jones said.
The powerful storm system also roared across parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.
The rain stopped after nightfall on March 3. In Beauregard, metal debris and tree branches littered the roadways. Power appeared to be out in many places.
“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!” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter late on March 3.
Some 150 first responders joined the efforts to search the debris after the storm hit in Beauregard, according to Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency.
No deaths had been reported on March 3 from other storm-damaged Alabama counties, according to Gregory Robinson, spokesman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. Crews were still surveying damage in several counties in the southwestern part of the state, Robinson said.
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 on March 4 to assess those and other storms.
RAW VIDEO OF DAMAGE
In rural Talbotton, Georgia, about 80 miles 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.
“The last check I had was between six and eight injuries,” Erenheim said in a phone interview.
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.
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 north of Tallahassee, Florida, on the evening of March 3. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.
Authorities said a tornado was confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle in the late afternoon on March 3.
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.