LEE COUNTY, AL — It looks like someone scraped the ground with a gigantic knife. That’s how Sheriff Jay Jones in rural Lee County, Alabama, described the devastation wrought by a pair of tornadoes that chewed through homes, businesses, trees, power lines and even a cell tower Sunday evening. At least 23 people died, and some residents appeared to have received just 5 minutes of warning.
A tornado watch was issued for the region around noon. Just before 2 p.m., the first warning was issued for Lee County.
“BMX issues Tornado Warning for Lee, Russell [AL] till 2:45 PM CST,” the National Weather Service in Birmingham tweeted.
Two minutes later, the agency pounded the alarm: “TORNADO WARNING for portions of Lee & Russell Counties until 245 PM. Storm is along Hwy 80 near Society Hill, moving E. TAKE SHELTER NOW!!”
About eight minutes later, the grim news was confirmed.
“Extremely dangerous tornado ON THE GROUND near Dupree in southern Lee Co.,” the agency tweeted. “TAKE SHELTER NOW if you live to the east of Dupree!!”
Damage reports started coming in just five minutes after the initial warning, CNN reported. Radar showed the tornado churning near Dupree, Smith Station and Griffin Mill. Photos posted on social media showed a large wedge tornado moving through Smith Station.
Scott Fillmer, whose home sits near Beauregard, Alabama, told media outlets the tornado sounded like “a freight train.”
And within an hour, another grave warning was issued — a second twister threatened communities elsewhere in the county. This time, the storm set its sites on Eufaula.
“NEW circulation now WNW of Eufaula,” the NWS tweeted around 3:50 p.m. “Tornado possible! Be in your safe place NOW if you live between Eufaula & Lakepoint Resort SP!”
Residents again reported hearing that ominous sound of a freight train rolling through.
“We had canceled our 5:30 (p.m.) service,” Pastor Leonard Weaver of the Greater Faith Christian Center told the Dothan Eagle. “But I was here anyway and I noticed it began raining hard and the lights flickered. Then, I heard that trainthey tell you about. I’m from Florida. I knew there wasn’t a train track around here, so I knew what it was. I didn’t know which way it was blowing. All I knew was that it got real dark and I could see stuff blowing.”
On Monday, rescuers continued their search for missing friends, family members and pets. Residents were left to pick up the pieces. Fillmer said there were power lines and a mattress in his driveway. He could see his patio furniture hanging from some surviving trees, The Washington Post reported. But he didn’t immediately realize the extent of the damage.
“You didn’t realize how bad it was until you got on the road,” he said. “Now it looks like it’s one of the worst tornadoes.”
More storm damage… about to totally dark, I still hear helicopters and emergency sirens. #tornado in Bearegard pic.twitter.com/nWm1bRNeHW
— Scott Fillmer (@scottfillmer) March 3, 2019
This is driving back the other direction Southeast down our road. The #tornado went across the road about halfway through this video. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/d6Qt1PYfB4
— Scott Fillmer (@scottfillmer) March 4, 2019
This was by far the hardest hit area on our road, Capps’ (Of the local famous Capps Sausage) house in the distance looks destroyed, cars are flipped, every tree in this swath is gone. #Tornado in Beauregard. @spann pic.twitter.com/UkgRiIwyVH
— Scott Fillmer (@scottfillmer) March 3, 2019
Rescuers prepared to continue sifting through a debris field Monday that stretched a half-mile wide. The rubble included pieces of mobile homes, splintered trees, downed power lines, overturned vehicles, gutted restaurants and even a mangled cell tower.
Jones, the sheriff, called the path of destruction “incredible.”
“I cannot recall, at least in the last 50 years, and longer than that, a situation where we have had this type, this loss of life that we experienced today,” Jones told CBS News.
Witnesses described what sounded like a war zone.
“It was just destruction,” Levi Baker, who lived near the devastation, told The Associated Press. “There were mobile homes gone. Frames on the other side of the road.”
Baker said he used a chain saw to help clear a path for ambulances and other first responders. He saw both people and animals dead, and said some houses had been destroyed. One house was swept off its foundation and sat in the middle of a roadway.
Both adults and children were among the dead. The youngest victim was 6 years old, the sheriff said. CNN reported that as many as a dozen tornadoes touched down across Alabama and Georgia.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey tweeted that state emergency officials are assisting local governments.
“Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives in the storms that hit Lee County today. Praying for their families & everyone whose homes or businesses were affected,” he said.
@spann near Weedon field in Eufaula pic.twitter.com/UpOh4nvQwT
— sparker (@sparker2374) March 3, 2019
Damage reports should be sent to Lee County emergency officials once it’s safe to do so.
The National Weather Service in Birmingham tweeted around 6 p.m. that three survey teams would be sent to assess damage in four counties: Autaga, Macon, Lee and Barbour.
“Our thoughts & prayers go out to everyone impacted by today’s storms. Please stay out of damaged areas so first responders can do their job,” the weather agency tweeted.
@spann Smiths Station, AL Tornado Damage pic.twitter.com/j7Twap4HXO
— Amy Cannon (@Almc12345) March 3, 2019
Lee County schools are closed Monday, the district wrote on its website.
Around 8 p.m. a possible tornado was reported in Cairo, Georgia. Damage was reported in that community as well. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s office said he will declare states of emergency in three southwest counties: Grady, Harris and Talbot, which allows state resources to help residents recover from disasters.