At least twenty-three people, some of them children, have died after a tornado swept through Lee County, Alabama on Sunday, destroying numerous homes and leaving a death toll that could rise as rescuers sift through the rubble.
“Unfortunately the death toll has gone up,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told local media on Sunday night. “Unfortunately I feel that number may rise yet again.”
Emergency workers were expected to toil through the night, pulling bodies and the injured out of the wreckage of destroyed homes and businesses.
“We’ve done everything we feel like we can do this evening. The area is just very, very hazardous to put anybody in to at this point in time.”
Jones added that several people remained missing and that an organized search of the area would commence in the morning.
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said the death toll could rise.
“We’ve still got people being pulled out of rubble,” he told the Birmingham News newspaper early on Sunday evening. “We’re going to be here all night.”
The East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika said in a statement that it was treating more than 40 patients as a result of the tornado and expects to receive more. Some patients have been sent to other hospitals, it added.
Severe weather unleashed one of numerous possible tornadoes that threatened the Southern United States on Sunday afternoon. Tornado warnings and watches were in effect for parts of Georgia and Alabama through Sunday evening.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey warned residents on Twitter that more severe weather might be on the way. She said the state was working to help families who had been impacted.
“Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives in the storms that hit Lee County today,” Ivey wrote on Twitter. “Praying for their families & everyone whose homes or businesses were affected.”
She said she was extending a state of emergency for Alabama that was issued on Feb. 23 to deal with flooding.
Video footage from the small community of Beauregard in Lee County showed homes reduced to piles of wreckage, felled trees, and debris from blasted buildings scattered across roads.
Photos on social media from a highway near Smiths Station, about 20 miles (32 km) east of Beauregard, showed a large bar called the Buck Wild Saloon with its roof torn off and missing most of a wall after the storm swept through.
Lee County Schools announced on Twitter that campuses in the county would be closed on Monday.
The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham, Alabama, said it was sending three survey teams out on Monday to assess damage in Autauga, Macon, Lee and Barbour Counties.
“Please stay out of damaged areas so first responders can do their job,” the NWS office said on Twitter.
The storm left more than 10,000 customers without power, the Birmingham News said, citing the utility Alabama Power.
As thousands faced a night without power, temperatures looked set to fall to near freezing following the storm.
“Colder air will sweep into the Southeast behind the severe weather with temperatures dropping into the 30s (1 C) southward to central Georgia and across most of Alabama by Monday morning,” AccuWeather meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said. “Those without power who rely on electric heat need to find ways to say warm.”