WASHINGTON (AFP): A tornado tore through the southern US state of Alabama on Sunday, killing 22 people, uprooting trees and causing “catastrophic” damage to buildings and roads, a local sheriff said.
“Unfortunately, I feel that number may rise yet again but that´s going to depend on our search efforts,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told a press conference.
Other people have been hospitalised, some with “very serious injuries,” while the search was still ongoing for more who are missing, he had earlier told reporters.
A local NBC affiliate reported that the search for survivors had been called off Sunday night due to dangerous conditions, and would resume on Monday morning.
“There are some children involved,” Lee County coroner Bill Harris told MSNBC earlier Sunday, following unconfirmed reports that an eight-year-old girl was among the dead.
Jones described the damage as “catastrophic, based on the destruction of homes that we´ve seen.”
Wrecked houses, downed trees
The swath of destruction left by the storm was a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) wide and stretched for the “several miles that it traveled on the ground,” according to Jones.
Still and video images showed trees that had been snapped in two, debris-strewn roads and wrecked houses in the wake of the storm.
More than 6,000 homes were left without power in Alabama, according to PowerOutageUS, while 16,000 suffered outages in neighbouring Georgia.
Authorities warned the death toll could rise further as rescuers search through the debris in Beauregard, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of the state capital Montgomery.
Television images showed the heavy rain had relented by dusk but many roads in the worst-hit areas were left littered with debris and unpassable.
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.
One bar in the town appeared to have lost its roof and most of its walls, in images screened by MSNBC, while a cell tower was completely destroyed.
“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.
Late Sunday, US President Donald Trump expressed his condolences to those affected.
“To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: Please be careful and safe,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Tornadoes and storms were truly violent and more could be coming. To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!”
The National Weather Center had issued a tornado warning for areas including Lee County earlier 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.”
It tweeted late Sunday that the southeastern US, struck by a severe storm system, could see “damaging winds, large hail and isolated tornadoes” overnight.
While Jones referred to a single storm, CNN reported that two tornadoes had hit Lee County in quick succession, some of “at least a dozen” it said tore through Alabama and the neighboring state of Georgia on Sunday.
NWS Birmingham suggested that there were multiple twisters in the area, tweeting that the “first tornado to impact Lee County today was at least an EF-3 & at least 1/2 mi wide.”
The EF-3 designation — on a scale of 0 to 5 — means the tornado had winds of 136 to 165 miles (218 to 266 kilometers) per hour.