Three children — ages 6, 9 and 10 — were among those killed by a powerful tornado that ripped through East Alabama on Sunday, packing winds of up to 170 mph, rolling cars and shredding homes.
In all, the storm claimed 23 lives, but authorities stressed they were still combing through the wreckage. They did not identify any of the victims Monday. Many wounded have been brought to hospitals in Opelika and Columbus.
The tornado was an EF4, the second-strongest on the rating scale, according to the National Weather Service in Birmingham. It is the deadliest to strike the United States since 2013, when a tornado tore through the Oklahoma City region, killing 24 people.
The Alabama storm plowed a path of almost a mile wide and 24 miles long in Lee County along the Georgia border. A second tornado — rated an EF1 at about 110 mph — developed in nearby Macon County and spun into Lee County. A third tornado, at least an EF1, slammed Eufaula, which lies further south.
A rural community with verdant fields, gently rolling hills and modest homes, Beauregard got the worst from the EF4 tornado. The region appears gashed, as if it were hit by a buzz saw. Homes have been turned into piles of rubble. The storm rolled a red Coca-Cola van over on its side in someone’s front yard. Bright yellow insulation hung from snapped trees Monday.
“This community experienced a devastating blow in the form of a tornado that created a lot of destruction, death and injuries within our community,” Kathrine Carson, director of the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, told reporters during an afternoon news conference Monday in the Beauregard High School library. “This is the worst natural disaster that has ever occurred in Lee County.”
Speaking in Washington on Monday, President Donald Trump pledged his support.
“I’ve spoken with Gov. (Kay) Ivey, and we’re working closely with officials throughout the region to get our communities back on their feet,” he said.
The Alabama governor’s voice was tinged with emotion as she described the path forward.
“Amidst this tragedy, we have a job to do. We must build back Lee County,” Ivey said. “Today, all of Alabama is focused on Lee County.”
Residents described having little warning before the storm struck.
Tanethia Stinson and her husband and two sons scrambled for shelter in their bathroom when they heard the tornado bearing down on their Beauregard neighborhood. Sounding like a freight train, the twister flattened their storage shed, spilling its guts out into their backyard. And it slammed a tree through one of their bedrooms. No one was injured there. But she said five of her husband’s relatives were killed elsewhere, including a cousin.
“I just prayed through the whole process for protection,” said Stinson, who weighs trucks for a living. “When it was over, we heard silence. It seemed like it took one minute. When we walked outside, you wouldn’t believe what we saw. You would just never have thought that it would have done that much damage that quickly.”
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The Rev. Chuck Adams got an urgent call from his daughter Sunday afternoon. Her future father-in-law, Robbie Burroughs, was pinned underneath the wreckage of his home. An Alabama state trooper, Burroughs had taken shelter with his wife and 9-year-old daughter in a closet when a tornado tossed their modular house in Beauregard about 70 yards, destroying it and trapping him beneath debris, Adams said.
Burroughs, according to Adams, was already rescued by the time the church minister arrived and is now suffering from a concussion, broken ribs and a back injury.
“He is better than some,” said Adams, associate pastor at Providence Baptist Church, which is sheltering storm victims. Adams described the scene after the tornado struck: “The few trees that were standing were just sticks. All the limbs were gone off of them. Devastation.”
Prissy Goodson rushed to open the Providence church basement for more than 80 people before the tornado hit Sunday. As they waited out the storm, some read the news about its devastation on their phones.
“We started getting word that there was massive destruction in our area, and so it got pretty emotional down there,” said Goodson, an administrative associate at Auburn University who teaches children’s church at Providence. “We actually had one lady who left… and came back and said, ‘I have no home.’”
Also Monday morning, dozens of parents and children filed into the Beauregard High School gymnasium, formed a circle and held hands, praying for the victims.
“Lord, just continue to strengthen everybody and help everybody to continue to be safe through the cleanup and as they get their lives back together,” said Michael Prickett, a youth leader for Union Grove Baptist Church in Opelika. “Just be with this community, be with this state and be with Georgia that got some destruction also.”
Faith Serafin, an author and Beauregard High School substitute teacher from Salem, choked up after the prayer as she talked about the anticipation of learning who was killed Sunday. The community is so tightknit, she said, that it’s likely many of the victims will be well-known.
“Just like everybody else in this community, we have a lot of faith,” she said. “We know God has got us. And as hard as it is to stay in our faith, we will until we overcome all of it. We will get there.”
-Please return to ajc.com for updates on this developing story
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