Meteorologists have classified one of possibly two tornadoes that ripped through southeast Alabama on Sunday as high severity, calling it the deadliest tornado in the United States since 2013.
In a Monday press conference, the National Weather Service said the tornado that left at least 23 people dead in rural Lee County has been classified as an EF4 tornado. The mile-wide “monster tornado” carried estimated wind speeds of about 170 mph and stayed on the ground for about 24 miles, said Chris Darden, meteorologist at NWS Birmingham.
Meteorologists in the U.S. and Canada rate tornadoes’ intensity using the EF-scale, or Enhanced Fujita scale. The five-step scale takes into account wind speed and damage to vegetation and structures. An EF4 tornado usually has wind speeds between 166 and 200 mph and causes devastating damage, such as completely destroying houses that were solidly constructed.
Darden also called the Lee County tornado the deadliest in the country since an EF5 twister hit Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013. That tornado killed 24 people with wind speeds of more than 200 mph. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the 2013 tornado caused billions of dollars of damage.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said the death toll remains at 23, including at least three children ages 6, 9 and 10. He said dozens are still missing and crews have not yet completed their search, but have finished combing through the hardest-hit areas.
“I’m not going to be surprised if we come up with some more deceased,” Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said. “Hopefully we won’t.”
Jones said rescue crews are continuing their search Monday using K-9s, ground search, unmanned aircraft drones and “everything we can get our hands on.” He advised people who are safe to stay away from the damaged areas so crews can complete their search.
The destruction is concentrated in Beauregard, a Lee County town about 60 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama. The tornado was part of a powerful series of storms that slashed through the Deep South, resulting in several tornado warnings in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Jones said the damage looks “as if someone took a giant knife and just scraped the ground.”
Jones said the county’s Emergency Management Agency has created a reunification center at Providence Baptist Church in Opelika, as well as a registry on the county website for families to post information about missing loved ones. The agency also encouraged people who are safe to mark themselves as so with the American Red Cross.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Monday that the entire state is focused on Lee County.
“Tornadoes ravaged parts of our great state, leaving behind trails of devastation and loss of human life,” she said. “We lost children, mothers, fathers, neighbors and friends. To know Alabama is to know that we are a tight-knit community of people, and today each of us mourns the loss of life of our fellow Alabamians.”
Ivey said she asked President Donald Trump for expedited assistance when he called her Monday morning to offer support. The president tweeted Monday that he’s ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give Alabama “A Plus treatment.”