Authorities in one Alabama county hit hardest by tornadoes at the weekend said on Monday morning the death toll was likely to rise from the confirmed 23, as search-and-rescue efforts continued in the south-eastern part of the state.

The Lee county sheriff, Jay Jones, said “several people” were still unaccounted for in Beauregard, a community south of the city of Opelika that took the brunt of the assault from a pair of powerful tornadoes that touched down with winds estimated at between 136mph and 165mph.

The tornado that ripped apart Beauregard was later reclassified as EF-4, meaning winds of 166–200mph, a higher classification that experts said was consistent with the devastation they saw: trailers overturned, homes torn from their foundations and trees uprooted.

After a later morning search-and-rescue sweep of the neighborhood, Jones said no more fatalities had been discovered, though he warned that “dozens” of people were still unaccounted for.

In an earlier statement, Jones described the damage as “catastrophic”. The confirmed death toll included a six-year-old child. As many as 20 people remained unaccounted for in the deadliest tornado strike in Alabama since the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado killed more than 200 in 2011.


Early on Monday, recovery teams from neighbouring states joined crews searching a trail of destruction 24 miles long and between a quarter- and a half-mile wide. Some survivors said they had less than five minutes from hearing tornado warning sirens to the twister striking.

“The challenge is the sheer volume of the debris where all the homes were located,” Jones told CNN. “It’s the most I’ve seen that I can recall.” He told WRBL-TV families in the area had “lost everything they ever had”.

From the White House, Donald Trump tweeted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) had 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”.

At least two tornadoes touched down in Lee county, with the first warning going out at 2.38pm local time on Sunday.

East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika said it had received more than 50 patients as a result of the tornado and more were expected. At 8pm the Lee county coroner, Bill Harris, said the ages of those killed ranged from children to adults in their 80s but none had been formally identified.

“We’ve still got people being pulled out of rubble,” he said. “We’re going to be here all night.”

It was believed that the youngest victim, age six, was Armando Hernandez, who became separated from his mother in Beauregard when the tornado struck. His mother, Kayla Melton, appealed for information on Facebook, writing: ‘Please look for my baby, he’s six years old, his name is Armando Hernandez, he goes by AJ. Last seen on Lee Road 38. Anyone in the area please help me find him please!!!!!’

His death was later confirmed by friends and family.

Another victim of the storm was 10-year-old Taylor Thornton, who was at a friend’s house in Beauregard when the tornado struck.

Taylor “was a very sweet, loving little girl”, her mother Ashley Thornton said. “She had a very big heart and she loved God. That’s where she is now.”

The death toll is more than double the number of people killed by tornadoes nationwide in 2018, when 10 people died, a record low.

The storm left more than 40,000 customers in Alabama and Georgia without power, the Birmingham News reported, and temperatures were near freezing overnight.



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