At Least 23 Dead as Storms, Possible Tornados Hit Deep South
Originally published Sunday, March 3 at 8:47 p.m. This story has been updated.
A sheriff confirmed at least 23 people were killed Sunday by a possible tornado in Alabama as severe storms destroyed mobile homes, snapped trees and left a trial of destruction and weather warnings extending into Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
Dozens of emergency responders rushed in to assist in Lee County, Alabama, after what appeared to be a large tornado struck Sunday afternoon as part of a powerful storm system raking the Southeast.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said Monday that 23 people had died. “And again the search continues. We still have some people that are reported missing.”
Authorities warned that the death toll could rise further as search efforts continued in the small community of Beauregard and surrounding areas. Jones said the storm’s path of destruction stretched for miles (kilometers) through his rural county, and in places was about a fourth of a mile (0.4 kilometers) wide. He didn’t have an immediate account of how many were believed missing.
Several people in Lee County were taken to hospitals, “some of them with very serious injuries,” Jones said.
Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said about 150 first responders were assisting in the storm’s aftermath.
Multiple homes were destroyed or damaged in Beauregard, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of Montgomery, Smith said.
“We’ve still got people being pulled out of rubble,” Lee County Coroner Bill Harris told Al.com on Sunday evening. “We’re going to be here all night.”
The sheriff and coroner did not immediately return phone messages from The Associated Press.
No deaths had been reported Sunday evening from storm-damaged Alabama counties outside Lee County, said Gregory Robinson, spokesman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. But he said crews were still surveying damage in several counties in the southwestern part of the state.
Radar and video evidence showed what looked like a large tornado crossing the area near Beauregard shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday, said meteorologist Meredith Wyatt with the Birmingham, Alabama, office of the National Weather Service.
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.
In rural Talbotton, Georgia, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) 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,” Ereheim said in a phone interview. “From what I understand it was minor injuries, though one fellow did say his leg might be broken.”
She said searches of damaged homes and structures had turned up no serious injuries or deaths.
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.
A large tornado touched down in an area straddling Peach County and Crawford County near Fort Valley. Rhonda Stubbs and her husband Charlie sheltered in a closet in their home as it passed. Then Then they called their neighbors.
"I said , 'Are y’all in the house?" He said no," Charlie Stubbs said. "I said, 'Good, your house is gone. You’re all together, everybody is good. I’m not going to worry about you anymore."
The roof the neighbors' home had been peeled completely away.
Authorities said a tornado was confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle late Sunday afternoon.
A portion of Interstate 10 on the Florida Panhandle was blocked in one direction for a time in Walton County in the aftermath, said Don Harrigan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.
“There’s a squall line moving through the area,” Harrigan told AP. “And when you have a mature line of storms moving into an area where low level winds are very strong, you tend to have tornadoes developing. It’s a favorable environment for tornados.”
The threat of severe weather was expected to continue into Sunday evening. 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.
Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, Bill Cormier in Atlanta, and Ryan Kryska in New York contributed to this report.