23 dead in preliminary EF-4 tornado in east Alabama

Officials say this is the worst natural disaster to ever hit Lee County

23 dead in preliminary EF-4 tornado in east Alabama
Julie Morrison holds a painting of her Lee County home that was destroyed in yesterday’s tornado. After decades of living here, her family plans to rebuild on this land. (Source: WSFA 12 News)

LEE COUNTY, AL (WSFA) - Search and rescue efforts in east Alabama’s Lee County have been called off for Monday night, according to Sheriff Jay Jones.

Rescue crews has worked feverishly to find any survivors - or bodies - the day after the area was slammed by severe weather that spawned a massive twister. That tornado, one of several around the state Sunday, decimated the southern Lee County community of Beauregard and surrounding areas.

Gov. Kay Ivey and Lee County officials held a briefing Monday afternoon to update residents and media on the recovery efforts. At 1 p.m, Jones said crews had searched the hardest hit areas without an increase in the already staggering death toll of 23. He cautioned, however, that there were still some areas that need to be searched again and the fatality count could still rise.

Jones said the search Monday concentrated in a one-square mile area in the Beauregard community, located in a rural portion of the county south of heavily populated cities like Auburn and Opelika. Lee Road 38 and Lee Road 39 suffered the worst damage, the sheriff explained.

“It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and just scraped the ground”

“It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and just scraped the ground," Jones said. "There are slabs where homes formerly stood, debris everywhere, trees snapped, whole forested areas where trees are snapped and lying on the ground.”

The National Weather Service said a survey revealed the damage found along County Road 39 in Lee County, just east of Cave Mill Road, is from a preliminary EF-4 tornado.

It was a mile wide and tracked for dozens of miles

NWS Birmingham Office Meteorologist In Charge Chris Darden, referring to it as a “monster tornado” said survey crews believed it to be at least an EF-4 twister with a track at least 24 miles long and nearly a mile wide at its peak.

Alabama’s last tornado fatality happened in the northern part of the state in Nov. 2016. And you would have to look back to March 2012 to find the last such fatality in the central part of the state. That was until Sunday.

WSFA 12 News Chief Meteorologist Josh Johnson said, as of Monday morning, it was tied at Alabama’s eighth deadliest single tornado ever. And further adding to the perspective, WSFA 12 News meteorologist Eric Snitil also noted that there were more fatalities in this one tornado than from all tornadoes nationwide in 2018, which claimed 10 lives.

“It’s been a long night.”

Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said there are three known child victims, ages 6, 9 and 10. There are also multiple adult victims killed in the storms, though age ranges and identities were not yet available.

“It’s been a long night," Harris said. “These families, some of them have lost entire families.”

“This is the worst natural disaster that has ever occurred in Lee County," said county EMA Director Kathryn Carson. "Most of us cannot remember anything ever creating this much of a loss of life and injuries in our citizens.”

Gov. Kay Ivey said the whole state is focused on Lee County right now.

“Tornadoes ravaged parts of our great state leaving behind trails of devastation and loss of human life. We lost children, mothers, fathers, neighbors and friends. To know Alabama is to know that we are a tight knit community of people and today each of us mourns the loss of life of our fellow Alabamians," Ivey said.

The governor said President Donald Trump called her Monday morning to offer support, and she asked for expedited assistance. Trump tweeted Monday he’s told the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give Alabama “the A Plus treatment.”

“I’ve spoken with Governor Ivey, and we’re working closely with officials throughout the region to get our communities back on their feet,” Trump said.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were injured. East Alabama Medical Center said Sunday afternoon it had received more than 40 patients as a result of the tornado. Some patients were sent to surrounding hospitals, including Columbus Regional in nearby Georgia, as well as UAB and Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, The later two confirmed at least 12 being given treatment as of Monday.

The Lee County EMA is asking residents to avoid the damaged areas. The following roads are closed: Highway 51 from Lee Road 42 to Lee Road 39 (diversions are set up at Highway 51 and Lee Road 11, Highway 51 and Lee Road 44, Highway 51 and Highway 280), Lee Road 38, Lee Road 39, Lee Road 721, Lee Road 294, Lee Road 293.

The nearby town of Smiths Station also suffered significant damage. The mayor said 24 homes were destroyed in the town of 5,000. Two people were injured, but there was no loss of life there.

Officials with the American Red Cross are asking those who have not made contact with their family to visit the safe and well search section of their website. If you are a resident of Lee County, you can register yourself as “safe and well” and concerned family and friends can search the list of those who have registered. Search results display the loved one’s first and last name and a brief message, according to the Red Cross.

If you have a missing family member, you’re also encouraged to fill out a form on the Lee County EMA website.

Lee County Sheriff: 'This hurts my heart'

Any displaced families or those looking for loved ones can go to Providence Baptist Church located at 2807 Lee Rd 166, Opelika. Red Cross will also be located here. Any media is directed to go to Beauregard High School located at 7343 Alabama Highway 51 Opelika.

#LeeCounty #TornadoVictimRelief

Posted by Auburn City Schools on Monday, March 4, 2019

Donations have been pouring into the community. Monday afternoon, the Lee Count EMA confirmed it was out of room to store anymore donated supplies and asked people to “hold off on taking donations to the drop off center until more room can be made.” Those wishing to give can still do so at the Church of the Highlands Dream Center in Auburn and Providence Baptist Church.

A Long Term Recovery Fund has been set up by Community Foundation of East Alabama. It’s listed as Lee County Disaster Fund and the contact number is 334-744-1020 or email info@cfeastalabama.org.

Donations to help storm victims in Lee County are being accepted at the Church of the Highlands Dream Center in Auburn and Providence Baptist Church.

All Lee County schools were closed Monday and will remain closed Tuesday, according to school officials.

Copyright 2019 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.