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ATLANTA (FOX 5 Atlanta) – Rescuers prepared Monday to tear through the rubble of mobile homes and houses in search of survivors of a powerful tornado that rampaged through southeast Alabama and killed at least 23 people. The storms also ripped through Georgia.
The trail of destruction was at least half a mile wide and overwhelmed rural Lee County’s coroners’ office, forcing it to call in help from the state.
“The devastation is incredible,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said.
Drones flying overheard equipped with heat-seeking devices had scanned the area for survivors, but the dangerous conditions halted the search late Sunday, Sheriff Jones said. Rescuers planned to resume the search at daylight Monday.
The Sunday tornado, which had winds that appeared to be around 160 mph (257 kph) or greater, was part of a powerful storm system that also slashed its way across parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
Levi Baker, who lives near the hard-hit area in Alabama, took a chain saw to help clear a path for ambulances and other first-responder vehicles. He said he saw bodies of dead people and dead animals.
He said some houses were demolished and trees were uprooted or snapped in half. One house was swept off its foundation and was sitting in the middle of the road.
“It was just destruction,” Baker said. “There were mobile homes gone. Frames on the other side of the road.”
Jones said the twister traveled straight down a county road in the rural community of Beauregard reducing homes to slabs.
Scott Fillmer was at home when the storm hit in Lee County.
“I looked out the window and it was nothing but black, but you could hear that freight train noise,” Fillmer said.
The National Weather Service confirmed late Sunday a tornado with at least an F3 rating caused the destruction in Alabama. Although the statement did not give exact wind estimates, F3 storms typically are gauged at wind speeds of between 158-206 mph (254-331 kph).
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 worst-hit area. Power appeared to be out in many places.
In a tweet late Sunday, President Donald Trump said: “To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: Please be careful and safe. Tornadoes and storms were truly violent and more could be coming. To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!”
To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: Please be careful and safe. Tornadoes and storms were truly violent and more could be coming. To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2019
Numerous tornado warnings were posted across parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday afternoon as the storm system raced across the region. Weather officials said they confirmed other tornadoes around the region by radar alone and would send teams out Monday to assess those and other storms.
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.
In Harris County, storm damage was widespread, with trees twisted and homes damaged. With the power out, people used chainsaws to clear the debris.
Many residents said they were total disbelief over what they had just witnessed.
“Trees coming down, seems like a period of about four minutes, and then it calmed down, I walked outside, and I said to myself, I said ‘I cannot believe this,’” said W.B. Barnes.
“Ran in the home, put pillows over our head, it sounded like a train coming through, and then we started hearing ceilings fall, and glass,” said Pat Sylvis.
Sylvis has lived in her home for decades. She could only look on as trees shredded the roof and destroyed the inside.
Dozens of homeowners in Harris County tell the same story, massive trees litter yards and roadways, as volunteers pitch in to clear the way.
The complete damage assessment will take some time, and several injuries were reported, officials reported Sunday night.
It’s a storm that won’t leave the minds of these survivors anytime soon.
“This is probably the worst one, yes sir, sure is,” said Barnes.
“I’ve never been through one like this, never,” said Sylvis.
Authorities in southwest Georgia were searching door-to-door in darkened neighborhoods after a possible tornado touched down in the rural city of Cairo, about 33 miles (53 kilometers) north of Tallahassee, Florida, on Sunday evening. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.
Authorities said a tornado was confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle late Sunday afternoon. A portion of Interstate 10 on the 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.
FOX 5 News reporting from Atlanta and Harris County, Georgia. The Associated Press and AL.com contributed to this report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.