East Alabama authorities confirmed Tuesday they were still searching for as many as eight missing people in the wake of a series of tornadoes that struck near the Georgia border last weekend, even as they identified 23 men, women and children who were killed by the storms.
Firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and volunteers are still combing through the wreckage in Lee County, which sits across from Columbus, Ga.
“We haven’t given up hope. We are still searching,” Opelika Fire Department Chief Byron Prather told reporters.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones indicated it is possible more bodies may be found.
“We are not ruling that completely out, but we are hoping, of course, as we all are, that number stays down,” Jones said.
PREVIOUSLY | Three children are among the 23 dead in Lee County
Three families each lost two or three people, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said. Seven from two families related by marriage were killed.
“There has been a phenomenal outpouring of support from this community,” Harris said. “I have already had several people reach out to me to try to get their contact information to see if there is any assistance they could give them — financially — toward the funeral costs.”
The youngest of the victims identified Tuesday was a 6-year-old boy, Armondo “AJ” Hernandez. He was among four children killed. The oldest victim was 89-year-old Jimmy Lee Jones.
Harris identified the other victims as: Jonathan Marquez Bowen, 9; Vicki Braswell, 69; Sheila Creech, 59; David Dean, 53; Irma Gomez-Moran, 41; Marshall Lynn Grimes, 59; Emmanuiel Jones, 53; Mary Louise Jones, 83; Mamie Roberts Koon, 68; Charlotte Ann Miller, 59; and Ryan Pence, 22.
They also included Maggie Delight Robinson, 57; Raymond Robinson Jr., 63; Tresia Robinson, 62; Eric Jamal Stenson, 38; Florel Tate Stenson, 63; Henry Lewis Stenson, 65; James Henry Tate, 86; Taylor Thornton, 10; Mykala Waldon, 8; and Felicia Woodall, 22.
“Just keep those families in your prayers,” Harris said. “I can’t thank this community enough for jumping in there and for the support I have seen firsthand. It has just been amazing.”
Also Tuesday, the National Weather Service confirmed the most powerful storm that struck East Alabama traveled well into Georgia. Packing winds of up to 170 mph, that tornado was classified as an EF4, the second-strongest on the rating scale. It tore a path almost a mile wide and 24 miles long in Lee County, chewing up trees, upending cars and crushing homes.
It was the deadliest twister to strike the United States since 2013, when a tornado tore through the Oklahoma City region, killing 24 people.
The tornadoes that struck Alabama’s Macon and Barbour counties have been upgraded to EF2s. One destroyed some of the National Weather Service’s equipment in Eufaula, which sits on the Georgia border.
Authorities issued warnings about the tornadoes through sirens and cellphone and radio alerts many minutes before the first person was killed in Beauregard, Ala., said Chris Darden, meteorologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service in Birmingham.
“People had about eight minutes of lead time before the really hard weather hit (in Beauregard), so that is enough time, if you have your plan in place, to take shelter,” he said. “Upstream in Macon County, we had a warning out for over 40 minutes for the same storm.”
Darden toured some of the storm damage Tuesday in Beauregard, a rural Lee County community south of Opelika. He glanced at strips of house siding wrapped around broken trees, a house missing a roof and the bare foundation of another home. Winds of up to 135 mph tore through the area, he estimated. The wreckage is a reminder, he added, why people need to remain on guard.
“Stay alert to the forecast and the messages that we are sending out,” he said, “and don’t wait for a warning to be issued to put a plan in place.”
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