At Least 14 Dead as Storms, Tornadoes Hit Deep South

BEAUREGARD, Ala. (AP/Hamodia) -
A funnel cloud in Byron, Ga., March 3, 2019. (Greg Martin via AP)

At least fourteen people, some of them children, were killed by a possible tornado in Alabama on Sunday as severe storms destroyed mobile homes, snapped trees and left a trail of destruction amid weather warnings extending into Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, authorities said.

Dozens of emergency responders were called in to assist in Lee County, Alabama, after what appeared to be a large tornado struck Sunday afternoon as part of a powerful storm system raking the Southeast. At least two people died and many others were injured in the small community of Beauregard, said Rita Smith, spokeswoman for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency. Most of the damage occurred in Lee County.

“We’ve got about 150 first responders out there,” Smith told The Associated Press by phone. “They are doing a phenomenal job. Sadly, we know that we have two known confirmed fatalities in Beauregard and many, many injuries.”

Multiple homes were destroyed or damaged in Beauregard, about 60 miles east of Montgomery, Smith said. She had no further details in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Lee County Coroner Bill Harris told Al.com on Sunday evening that he expected the number of dead to rise in the hard-hit area as emergency responders combed through the wreckage and debris. He did not immediately return phone messages from The Associated Press.

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

WNBC reported that Brian Hastings, the director of the Alabama Management Agency, said in an interview, “It’s a widespread storm,” and state EMA and transportation officials were responding in Lee County.

“We have historic flooding to the north and historic flooding on the Tombigbee [River], and now this storm system that just went through, and now we’re getting reports of significant damage”, Hastings said.

In Opelika, Lee County, the fire chief Byron Prather reported that several homes have been destroyed, and they contained leaking propane tanks, which pose a serious fire hazard.

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.

In rural Talbotton, Georgia, about 80 miles 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.

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 tornadoes.”

The threat of severe weather was expected to continue until late Sunday. A tornado watch was in effect for much of eastern Georgia, including Athens, Augusta and Savannah until 11:00 PM Sunday evening. The tornado watch also covered a large area of South Carolina, including the cities of Charleston and Columbia.

Almost 11,000 customers were without power early Sunday evening in Alabama, utility companies reported, while Georgia utilities reported more than 25,000 without power, most of them in the southern and western parts of the state, where the storm continued later Sunday.