Residents and friends help clean up after a tornado struck in Beauregard, Alabama
Beauregard (United States) (AFP) - Rescuers uncovered widespread damage in Alabama on Monday caused by two back-to-back tornadoes that ripped across the southern state, with the death toll of 23 expected to rise further.
"It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and scraped the ground," said Sheriff Jay Jones of Lee County, which borders Georgia. "There are slabs where homes formerly stood, there is debris everywhere, trees are snapped."
He said some of the dead were children, including one just six years old. Such destructive devastation has not been seen for half a century in the state, according to the sheriff.
Another young victim, Taylor Thornton, died while visiting a friend in Lee County. "She's gone to heaven. She's only eight years old. It feels not real," her aunt Kay Thornton told NBC affiliate WSFA 12 before bursting into tears.
"We have several people who are still unaccounted for," Jones said. "Unfortunately, we anticipate the number of fatalities may rise as the day goes on."
Others were hospitalized, some with "very serious injuries."
Search operations for those still missing had to be halted late Sunday due to hazardous conditions, but were renewed early Monday with agencies from across the state and from neighboring Georgia joining the hunt.
- Wrecked houses, downed trees -
The swath of destruction left was a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) wide and stretched for the "several miles that it traveled on the ground," according to Jones.
The powerful winds picked up a billboard from the Lee County Flea Market in Alabama and dumped it some 20 miles away, across the state line in Georgia, local media reported.
More than 6,000 homes were left without power in Alabama, according to PowerOutage.us, while 16,000 suffered outages in neighboring Georgia.
The search for missing people was focused in the area around Beauregard, about 60 miles east of the state capital Montgomery.
While the heavy rains that accompanied the high winds had relented overnight, many roads in the worst-hit areas were blocked by debris, hindering search efforts.
Governor Kay Ivey asked for expedited federal aid. She said President Donald Trump called her vowing "support" and expressed his condolences to those affected.
He lated tweeted that he has directly ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA to give Alabama the "A Plus treatment."
"I want you to know I've got your back. We will do everything in our power to help the citizens of Lee County recover," Ivey told reporters.
Residents in the town of Smith Station told local TV news crews of their shock at turning up to work to find their businesses destroyed, and seeing crying co-workers comforting one another.
Town resident Sam Cook was trying to enter his house when the tornado struck.
"It sounded like a race car coming. Like the Indy 500. It was in a rush. On a roll. All of a sudden it just attacked," he told CBS affiliate News 3 of nearby Columbia, Georgia.
"I was getting out of the truck to go in the house. I had to go about 30 yards. I couldn't run. The force of that wind -- you couldn't run. You just had to take steps to make yourself go," he said.
One bar in the town had its roof and most of its walls torn off, while a cell phone tower was buckled and twisted by a roadside.
"My sister and niece have been under tornado watch and warnings all day in Montgomery... Prayers up for Alabama," Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ava Duvernay tweeted Sunday.
- 'Take Cover Now!' -
The National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a tornado warning for areas including Lee County on Sunday, calling on residents to: "TAKE COVER NOW! Move to a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows."
The warning for the first twister was issued at 2:58 pm (2058 GMT), the NWS said. The warning for the second came less than an hour later, at 3:38 pm.
The National Weather Service said the most powerful tornado was an EF4 with winds estimated at 170 miles (270 kilometers) per hour, the first twister of that strength in nearly two years.
Around a dozen tornadoes were reported to have touched down in Alabama and Georgia in the course of the day, CNN reported.
Schools in the area were to remain closed on Tuesday and grief counselors would be on hand when they eventually reopened, schools superintendent James McCoy said.
"We're trying to locate teachers, make sure they are okay and see if they need anything. We do know we have personnel that have lost houses," McCoy was quoted as saying.