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Deadly Alabama tornado wider, longer, stronger than originally believed

The deadly tornado that killed at least 23 people in southeast Alabama left a trail of destruction nearly 1.4 kilometres wide and at least 38 km long, says Emergency Measures Agency state director Brian Hastings. Winds reached 273 km/h.

At least 23 killed in Sunday twister that devastated Lee County

A man works on a damaged building the morning after two back-to-back tornadoes touched down in Beauregard, Ala. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Investigators in Lee County, Ala., say the deadly tornado that tore through parts of the state yesterday was wider, longer and stronger than originally believed. 

The trail of destruction was nearly 1.4 kilometres wide and at least 38 km long, according to Emergency Measures Agency state director Brian Hastings. He said it had maximum winds of 273 km/h.

Rescuers continued to search through the rubble of mobile homes and houses Monday looking for survivors. The tornado is blamed for the deaths of at least 23 people, including children. 

"It looks like someone almost just took a giant knife and scraped the ground," Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said during a Monday morning news conference, referring to the devastation. "There are slabs where homes formerly stood, debris everywhere, trees are snapped. I've not seen this level of destruction ever in my experience in Lee County."

Jones said at least three children, ages six, nine and 10, were among the dead.

Rescue workers, local residents, and volunteers search the wreckage of a home after a Sunday night tornado in Beauregard, Ala. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Associated Press)

More than 50 people were reported injured, some very seriously, and the death toll is expected to rise, authorities said. Dozens remained missing.

Drones flying overhead equipped with heat-seeking devices had scanned the area for survivors, but the dangerous conditions halted the search late Sunday, Jones said. "The devastation is incredible."

The tornado was part of a powerful storm system that also slashed its way across parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida on Sunday. Officials confirmed Monday afternoon that two other, smaller tornados also touched down in the area. 

Hastings says the main tornado was upgraded to an EF-4. EF-4 storms typically are gauged at wind speeds of between 267 and 321 km/h, on the upper end of the Enhanced Fujita scale, which meteorologists use to measure tornado strength. 

Two women console each other as they prepare to attend a prayer circle for those who lost their lives in the tornado. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Associated Press)

Storm trackers have also confirmed two smaller twisters classified as EF-1, each of which packed winds of up to 177 km/h, according to Chris Darden, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Ala. "We'll be examining more areas tomorrow," he said.

Levi Baker, who lives near the hard-hit area in Alabama, took a chainsaw to help clear a path for ambulances and other first-responder vehicles. He said he saw dead people and animals.

He said some houses were demolished and trees were uprooted or snapped in half. One house was swept off its foundation and was sitting in the middle of the road.

A funnel-shaped cloud is seen on I-10 near Marianna, Fla., on Sunday. Tornado warnings were posted across parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday afternoon. (James Lally/Associated Press)

"It was just destruction," Baker said. "There were mobile homes gone. Frames on the other side of the road."

Jones said the twister travelled straight down a county road in the rural community of Beauregard, a community about 95 kilometres east of the state capital Montgomery, reducing homes to slabs.

No deaths have been confirmed from storm-damaged Alabama counties outside Lee County, according to local authorities. But crews are still surveying damage in several counties in the southwestern part of the state. 

Warnings in 4 states

Numerous tornado warnings were posted across parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday afternoon as the storm system raced across the region. 

Get a ground level view of the destruction caused by the three tornados Sunday: 

At least 23 people, some of them children, died after a tornado swept through Lee County, Alabama, on Sunday. The death toll was expected to rise as rescuers searched through the rubble of destroyed homes. 1:39

In rural Talbotton, Ga., about 130 kilometres south of Atlanta, a handful of people were injured by either powerful straight-line winds or a tornado that destroyed several mobile homes and damaged other buildings, said Leigh Ann Erenheim, director of the Talbot County Emergency Management Agency. 

Televised news footage showed smashed buildings with rooftops blown away, cars overturned and debris everywhere. Trees all around had been snapped bare of branches. 

"The last check I had was between six and eight injuries," Erenheim said in a phone interview. "From what I understand it was minor injuries, though one fellow did say his leg might be broken." 

She said searches of damaged homes and structures had turned up no serious injuries or deaths there. 

Henry Wilson of the Peach County Emergency Management Agency near Macon in central Georgia said a barn had been destroyed and trees and power poles had been snapped, leaving many in the area without power.

 Authorities said a tornado was confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle late Sunday afternoon. 

The threat of severe weather continued into the late-night hours. A tornado watch was in effect for much of eastern Georgia, including Athens, Augusta and Savannah. The tornado watch also covered a large area of South Carolina, including the cities of Charleston and Columbia.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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