BEAUREGARD, Ala. – First responders aided by drones and search dogs hunted for survivors Monday after a devastating tornado killed at least 23 people, injured dozens more, smashed homes, snapped power lines and toppled a massive steel cell tower.
The tornado Sunday was part of a powerful storm system that also ripped through parts of Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. The National Weather Service in Tallahassee confirmed the system spawned multiple tornadoes in Alabama and others in Leon County, Florida, and Cairo, Georgia.
In Alabama, Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said searchers sifted through the most severely damaged areas of this rural community less than 10 miles from sprawling Auburn University. No additional victims were found, but he said the search was continuing. Dozens of people were unaccounted for, he said.
"It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and just scraped the ground," Jones said. "There are slabs where homes normally stood. There is debris everywhere."
National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Darden said the area had been warned of possible tornadoes days before the storm. Lee County residents had warnings eight to nine minutes before the killer twister struck, he said. That is below the national average of about 14 minutes, the weather service said.
Evidence indicated the storm roared through as an EF4 in strength with winds of about 170 mph.
"It was almost a mile wide, a monster storm as it moved across the area," Darden said.
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris confirmed that at least three children – ages 6, 9 and 10 – had died. One of them was fourth-grader Taylor Thornton, her school said. "Our hearts at Lee-Scott Academy are broken this morning," the school said in a Facebook post Monday. "Please pray for the Thornton family, our students, faculty, and staff during this difficult time."
A GoFundMe campaign for Taylor's family quickly surpassed its $15,000 goal.
Jones said the primary focus Monday was on search and rescue. Heat-detecting drones were scanning the wreckage for people who may be trapped.
"This hurts my heart," Jones said. "It's extremely upsetting to me to see these people hurting like this and families who have lost loved ones. This is a very tight-knit community. These people are tough, resilient people. It's knocked them down, but they'll be back."
The tornado was the nation's most deadly since at least May 20, 2013, when a tornado killed 24 people in Oklahoma, Darden said. Last year, tornadoes killed 10 Americans, the fewest since unofficial records began in 1875.
Harris said he called in help from the state because there were more bodies than his office could handle. Most of the identities had been determined Monday afternoon, and families were being notified.
Jan Murphy’s home escaped damage, but the 26-year resident of Beauregard said she didn't have to go far to see the destruction.
“Just a quarter-mile down the road, everything’s gone," she said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey expanded a state of emergency statewide. President Donald Trump tweeted condolences to victims and their families.
"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," Trump tweeted. "@GovIvey, one of the best in our Country, has been so informed. She is working closely with FEMA (and me!)."
The East Alabama Medical Center said it had received 60 patients. All but four had been released by Monday afternoon. Other patients were treated elsewhere, the hospital said.
Opelika Animal Hospital, a few miles north of here, began boarding animals free of charge after the storm. Gary Hunt, a veterinarian, said volunteers quickly brought in five animals, some of them injured.
“In a situation like this, we’re trying to help the people so they don’t need to be worried about their pets,” he said. “They need to be worried about themselves and their families. If we can take the burden off them, we’re glad to do it.”
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in three counties, promising "swift action" toward recovery. In Grady County, Cairo Mayor Booker Gainor said a tornado struck just off the downtown area, damaging dozens of homes and businesses. There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries, but Gainor said crews responded to several residents who were trapped in their damaged homes.
At the Cairo IGA, customers and employees huddled together on Aisle 6 in the middle of the store when the storm hit. The tornado ripped off part of the roof and sheared the bricks off one exterior wall.
“You could feel the building shaking," closing manager Gabriel Lewis said. "There was a bunch of wind blowing in the doors."
In Talbot County, several minor injuries were reported and a few buildings were damaged, emergency management spokeswoman Ann Erenheim said.
In South Carolina, about 150 people hunkered down at the Red Bank Baptist Church in Lexington County during Sunday services. Children sang “Jesus Loves Me” as the storm howled. A column in the front of the building was toppled and another was damaged.
The region is expected to get a reprieve from the winds in coming days. But colder air will sweep into the Southeast behind the severe weather, AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said. Temperatures could drop into the 30s southward to central Georgia and across most of Alabama.
Vitale reported from Alabama, Bacon from McLean, Va. Contributing: Steve Arnold and Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser; Doyle Rice and Kristin Lam, USA TODAY; Grace Pateras and Jeff Burlew, Tallahassee Democrat; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Everything's gone': Stunned Alabama searches for missing after tornado kills 23