At least 14 dead as storms, possible tornados hit Deep South
An apparent tornado roaring across southeast Alabama killed at least 14 people and injured several others Sunday as severe storms destroyed mobile homes, snapped trees and scattered destruction and weather warnings into Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
Dozens of emergency responders rushed to join search and rescue efforts in Lee County, Alabama, after what appeared to be a large tornado touched down Sunday afternoon, springing out of a powerful storm system raking the Southeast.
“I can say that at this time we have 14 confirmed fatalities,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told broadcast outlet WRBL-TV. “And again the search continues. We still have some people that are reported missing.”
Authorities warned that the death toll could rise further in coming hours 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.
After nightfall Sunday, the rain had stopped and pieces of metal debris and tree branches littered roadways in Beauregard. Two sheriff’s vehicles blocked reporters and others from reaching the area of greatest devastation. Power appeared out to homes and businesses around the community in southeast Alabama.
Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said about 150 first responders jumped in to efforts to search the debirs after the powerful storm hit. She said numerous homes were destroyed or damaged in Beauregard, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of Montgomery.
“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. Weather officials said they confirmed other tornadoes around the region by radar alone and would send teams out early Monday to assess the situation involving those and others.
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.
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 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.
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