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Alabama’s governor walked a country road lined with shattered mobile homes Wednesday as the search for victims of a monstrous tornado ended and residents salvaged what they could from the rubble and planned funerals for the 23 dead.
“Y’all, it’s horrendous, absolutely horrendous,” Gov. Kay Ivey said after touring some of the worst devastation in an area of Lee County where “nothing’s left standing, everything’s in shreds.”
Ivey signed a disaster assistance agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and ordered state flags flown at half-staff until sunset Sunday.
As Ivey surveyed the damage, residents picked through mounds of splintered lumber, twisted metal and broken glass that had once been their homes.
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Brooke Waldrop was searching for the beloved motorcycle vest of her late stepfather, Marshall Grimes, who had belonged to a Christian motorcycle club.
“Words cannot express how much this man loved God and he loved his motorcycles,” Waldrop said.
Grimes was among three people killed in the tornado-flattened home. Waldrop said her 11-year-old sister Kayla was the only person inside who lived. The storm killed her father, her best friend and her father’s girlfriend. Waldrop hoped to find Grimes’ vest and put it in a shadow box and give it to her as a memento.
“For her to be the sole survivor of this one house is going to be hard for her,” Waldrop said.
The huge EF4 tornado struck the rural community of Beauregard on Sunday afternoon, blasting an area nearly a mile wide with 170 mph (270 kph) winds.
The death toll stood at 23 as officials announced Wednesday that the search for victims had ended after two full days. Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said the final seven people on officials’ list of the missing had been accounted for and were alive.
“We are still in standby mode on the outside chance they find somebody else, which is not likely,” County Coroner Bill Harris told a news conference.
The dead included four children and a couple in their 80s. Ten victims belonged to a single extended family . At least two funerals were scheduled for Thursday, with many more to follow soon after.
Kathy Pardrige wore a brace to keep her broken neck stabilized as she looked for anything salvageable in the ruins of her home. Pardrige, her family and their two dogs and pet rabbit all survived, but nearly everything they owned was destroyed.
They were at home when they heard the tornado alert on their phones, she said. A few minutes later, the house began to shake.
“My husband had grabbed me and we flew about 20 to 25 feet (6 to 8 meters) before we landed on the ground,” she said.
Pope Francis sent condolences Wednesday to tornado victims in a telegram to the bishop of Mobile, Alabama, the Most Rev. Thomas Rodi. The pope said he was saddened to learn of the “tragic loss of life and injuries.”
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump said he will survey the damage Friday.
The National Weather Service has confirmed at least 34 tornadoes hit Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday.
The twister that smashed Beauregard was the deadliest U.S. tornado in nearly six years. The weather service said it remained on the ground for an hour and 16 minutes, crossing the Chattahoochee River into western Georgia along a path stretching roughly 70 miles (112 kilometers). That meant the tornado traveled at an average speed of nearly 55 mph (90 kph).
And though it lost some intensity entering Georgia, the twister injured seven people in the neighboring state.
“Typically, in the Southern plains of the U.S. in what they call the traditional tornado alley, that would be a fast forward speed,” said Chris Darden, meteorologist in charge of the weather service’s Birmingham office.
Twisters in states like Oklahoma and Kansas can travel as slow as 10 or 15 mph (16 or 24 kph), he noted.
“Our storms tend to move faster,” Darden said of the Southeast tornadoes.
Alabama and several other Southern states could soon be under threat of more severe storms — including the risk of some tornadoes — with a new system expected to reach the South this weekend, forecasters said.
A vast part of the region from Texas to Georgia will be under threat of severe weather Saturday, the national Storm Prediction Center warned. The at-risk area is home to 41 million people and includes major cities such as Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta.
The Beauregard tornado was the deadliest to hit the U.S. since May 2013, when an EF5 twister killed 24 people in Moore, Oklahoma.