Drone captures tornado aftermath in Alabama
Finally the death toll steadied, on Monday afternoon in Beauregard, Ala.
All through the night Sunday, as search and rescue teams combed through the wreckage after an afternoon tornado wrecked the town of 8,000-10,000, the count of those killed had kept rising, from two to seven to 10, and then 12 and 20 and 22.
On Monday afternoon, as authorities held a news conference for an update on the rescue effort, the toll stood finally at 23, with one of those dying at a hospital.
Searchers had been through the worst area of damage, on Alabama 51 at Lee County Roads 38 and 39, but they still had people reported missing, and other areas to cover, said Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones.
“We still have lots of people who aren’t accounted for at this time,” Jones said during the 1 p.m. EST news conference at Beauregard High School. Searchers were using helicopters and drones with heat sensors to track anyone who might need assistance.
Dozens remained unaccounted for, and dozens of homes sites were left to search, he said.
“We still have lots of people who aren’t accounted for at this time,” the sheriff said. “We’re looking at some additional areas we haven’t covered yet.”
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said all but six of the bodies had been identified. “We believe we know who those individuals are,” he said of the six. “We’ve talked to the families.”
Entire families were killed in the storm, and among the deceased were three children ages 6, 9 and 10, he said. The next of kin had been notified, in the majority of cases: “Most of them I’ve already spoken to,” he said.
He said the coroner’s office would disclose a list of those killed when the search ended and all the families had been notified.
Inspectors with the National Weather Service were on the scene Monday to assess the damage and gauge the power of the storm, rated an E-4 with winds up to 170 mph, according to Chris Darden of the weather service.
“That’s based on damage that we saw not far from here on County Road 39,” he said.
The “monster storm” had a track about a mile wide and 24 miles long, he said, adding the NWS tracked two other Alabama storms Sunday, each rated an EF-1, in Macon County and in Barbour County, where the Eufaula airport had extensive damage.
An EF-1 tornado can have wind speeds of up to 112 mph, according to the Enhanced Fujita scale the service uses to gauge a storm’s power.
Darden said the Beauregard tornado “was the deadliest tornado in the United States since the Moore, Okla., tornado in 2013.” That EF-5 storm on May 20, 2013, reported had winds up to 210 mph and killed 24.
The deadly Lee County storms that left people homeless were to be followed by freezing temperatures, with the weather service expecting a low of 28 degrees Monday night, 26 degrees Tuesday and 29 degrees Wednesday.
Beauregard’s Providence Baptist Church was set up as a shelter for those who lost their homes. Residents with immediate needs were told to call 211, as were those hoping to donate supplies, said Kathryn Carson of the Lee County Emergency Management Agency.
Jones said Lee County had an “overwhelming response” from other agencies offering aid. “I have to say that we are so appreciative of everyone’s efforts to come to our aid in our time of need.”
The community will recover, he said: “The folks in Beauregard are resilient people. They’re community-oriented. You will not find a stronger group of people anywhere in regard to taking care of their community and doing what they can to help each other.”
He said the wave of storms that tracked through Beauregard continued from eastern Lee County through Smiths Station and across the Chattahoochee River into northern Muscogee and southern Harris County, causing more damage but no fatalities.
About 20 miles east of Beauregard, in Smiths Station, 24 homes were destroyed and two people were injured when storms hit the town of 5,000 people at 3 p.m. Sunday, said Mayor Bubba Copeland.
“Our hearts in Smiths Station are with our neighbors in Beauregard,” Copeland said.
“Today, all of Alabama is focused on Lee County,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey during the news conference.
She said President Donald Trump called her cell phone at 8:15 a.m. Monday to pledge federal support.
“We will stand together and get through this together,” she said. “We could not overcome this devastation without all of us working together…. We will overcome this loss.”