AUBURN, Ala. – Ten-year-old Taylor Thornton had just returned from a camping trip with friends to reunite with her family when the tornado hit. When her father came to pick her up from a friend’s house Sunday afternoon, the mobile home was in shambles.
Amid the wreckage, he found Taylor’s body, relatives said.
“Angel from heaven,” Lee Thornton said soon after learning his niece had been killed. “Never did anything wrong.”
Authorities on Monday sifted through the debris, searching for other victims of the powerful tornadoes that tore across the Southeast a day earlier, slicing through parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Many survivors were left without homes, packing into shelters and recovering in hospitals.
The worst of it was felt here in Lee County, Alabama, where at least 23 people were killed, authorities said, more than doubling the death toll from all tornadoes nationwide last year.
Alabama officials said at least three children were killed, including a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old. As crews continued searching the wreckage, they warned that the death toll could increase. The tornadoes unleashed “catastrophic” damage in Lee County, said Sheriff Jay Jones.
“It looks like someone took a giant knife and scraped the ground,” he said.
The storm’s deadliest impact occurred in 1 square mile, Jones said, although some debris was thrown as far as a half-mile. Many of the obliterated homes were concentrated along two rural routes, focusing much of the pain in one narrow slice of the state.
Lee County coroner Bill Harris said his office had identified nearly all the victims, but he would not release the names until next of kin are notified.
“Some of them have lost just about their entire family,” Harris said of the survivors.
The National Weather Service said Monday that the tornado in Lee County had a preliminary EF-4 rating, the second-strongest category, with winds as strong as 170 mph. It was the first tornado of that strength in the United States since an April 2017 twister in Canton, Texas.
Rescuers deployed infrared drones, helicopters and dogs to search for signs of life amid a wide swath of debris, Jones said. And people also rushed to help friends and neighbors whose homes and businesses were destroyed by the powerful winds.
Ashley Riggs said she took the day off work to search her friends’ homes in Beauregard, Alabama, for any undamaged belongings. They had survived the tornado by taking shelter in a bathtub, but one was taken to a hospital with a broken leg and another had bruised her shoulders.
Julie Morrison and Eric Sward’s mobile home “blew off the foundation,” she said, and “both cars were demolished.” Their son Chris Sward’s mobile home, which was next door, was also destroyed.
“There is nothing where the house sat,” said Riggs, 35. She found some car keys, she said, but could not find a wallet.
Residents had precious few minutes to brace for the storm. The first tornado warning was issued at 1:58 p.m. – five minutes before the initial damage reports in Lee County were received, National Weather Service meteorologist Gary Goggins said in Birmingham.
A second tornado struck 35 minutes later, he said.
The National Weather Service reported Monday that a second strong twister began in Macon County and then moved into Lee.
Scott Fillmer, 48, had sought shelter in his laundry room with his wife, their three cats and a puppy once the emergency warnings began to blare from his phone.
After the deadly tornadoes had passed, the first thing Scott Fillmer noticed was the overwhelming smell of pine trees that littered his front yard in Beauregard, Alabama.
When he opened his front door, he found two power lines and a mattress in his driveway. His patio furniture was hanging from the surviving trees. A car bumper had flown into his pasture, and jagged slabs of wood were strewn on the lawn. He got in his tractor and grabbed a chain saw, and then he saw the rest of it: the leveled mobile homes. The dilapidated buildings missing their roofs.
“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.”
President Donald Trump, speaking at the White House on Monday, addressed Lee County and said the federal government “pledged our unwavering support to help you rebuild” after the tornadoes.
“Towns, schools, churches and homes were devastated by tornadoes of a force like we haven’t seen in a long time. Historic,” he said. Trump added of the storms: “Probably nobody made it out of that path; that path was brutal.”
On Twitter, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, said she extended a state-of-emergency declaration to the entire state. “Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives in the storms that hit Lee County today,” she tweeted. “Praying for their families & everyone whose homes or businesses were affected.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp followed with an emergency declaration Monday for Grady, Harris and Talbot counties.
Sunday’s tornadoes were the nation’s deadliest since May 20, 2013, when a category EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people and leaving more than 200 others injured, according to data from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center. Ten people died in tornadoes in the United States in 2018.
The weather service logged at least 36 tornado reports Sunday as twisters swept across across Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, but none was as severe as those in Lee County.
Victims were transported to hospitals with life-threatening injuries, and the East Alabama Medical Center announced that it had received more than 40 patients.
People living in mobile and manufactured homes faced the most significant damage.
“These people are tough, resilient people, and it’s knocked them down,” Jones said. “But they’ll be back.”
Leigh Krehling, a public information officer for Opelika, Alabama, the county seat, told The Washington Post on Sunday that while the county had experienced tornadoes before, she didn’t think they had ever seen anything like this.“Our folks are suffering here in the county,” she said.
About 100 miles southwest of Atlanta, Lee County, which includes the city of Auburn, has a population of more than 161,000 and covers roughly 600 square miles.
According to the National Weather Service, the most severe tornado was rated EF-4, with estimated winds of 170 mph. The tornado was estimated to be nearly a mile wide.
“This was a monster tornado,” said Chris Darden, the National Weather Service’s meteorologist in charge in Birmingham.
A tremendous temperature contrast between the north-central and southeastern United States set the backdrop for this devastating storm outbreak. The region struck by the twisters sat in a volatile zone on the northern fringe of the warm and humid air, right up against the leading edge of a bitter Arctic chill.
Scott Peake, a 33-year-old storm chaser, was right on the tail of one tornado in Lee County. He watched it skip across Highway 51, and while a parade of headlights whizzed past him, fleeing the storm, Peake charged toward it, getting about a quarter-mile from its path, he said.
“I was close enough that I could hear the roar,” he said. “It sounded like I was in a waterfall.”
Peake has tracked numerous twisters, but the damage he witnessed Sunday was extraordinary, he said. As he headed south down Highway 51 in his Ford Taurus, he drove past a mobile home park near Beauregard where first responders were just starting to swarm.
Insulation was scattered all around. “Everything was flattened,” he said.
It was hard to imagine what had become of all the people who lived there, he said.
Jones, when describing the damage, said that in some cases, “just slabs (were) left where once stood a home.”
The Lee County Flea Market reported on Facebook that its billboard flew across the state line, landing roughly 30 miles away in Hamilton, Georgia. In Cairo, Georgia, about three hours south of Hamilton, Mayor Booker T. Gainor told The Post that more than two dozen homes in the town of about 10,000 people had been damaged.
Back in Beauregard, once it was safe to emerge, Trey Capps made his way over to his family’s business, Capps Sausage, not far from Fillmer’s property, to survey the damage. Seeing the wreckage on the news, Capps feared the worst, and he found it when he arrived. The building’s roof was missing, he said, and a longtime family home that his great-grandfather built nearby had been leveled. Pecan trees that Capps estimated were at least 100 years old were gone. The home, he said, was not salvageable, a loss that struck him as “unreal.”
He could muster only one silver lining: “Thank goodness my folks were out of town at the time,” he said, before remembering all those who weren’t.