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At least 23 dead in Alabama as tornadoes ravage the Deep South

Radar image of a tornado on the ground in Alabama. Image from National Weather Service in Birmingham.

The first thing Scott Fillmer noticed was the overwhelming smell of pine trees. The trees littered his front yard just outside Beauregard, Alabama, after deadly tornadoes whipped through Lee County on Sunday afternoon.

He opened his front door to find two power lines and a mattress lying 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. Fillmer, 48, 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."

In the deadliest tornado outbreak in the United States in six years, twisters tore through Alabama, Georgia and Florida and killed at least 23 people, including at least three children ages 6 to 10. The two tornadoes that touched down in Lee County on Sunday wrought a trail of "catastrophic" damage, Sheriff Jay Jones said, leaving dozens of people without homes and in shelters and many mourning loved ones.

"This hurts my heart," Jones told reporters Monday. "It's extremely upsetting to me to see these people hurting like this and families who have lost loved ones."

Rescuers deployed infrared drones, helicopters and K-9 units to search for signs of life amid a wide swath of debris that made initial rescue efforts difficult, Jones said. Some debris was carried as far as a half-mile from its point of origin,

"It looks like someone took a giant knife and scraped the ground," Jones said, describing obliterated homes mostly along two rural routes, Lee County Roads 38 and 39.

Most victims were concentrated in a one-square-mile area, though, Jones said.

Bill Harris, the Lee County coroner, said his office had identified nearly all the victims. The children killed were 6, 9 and 10 years old, he said.

Some of those affected "have lost their entire family," Harris told reporters. The office had resolved all missing-persons reports by noon Monday, he said.

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.

On Twitter, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, R, 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."

President Donald Trump said Monday that he was working closely with Ivey to deliver emergency federal assistance.

"FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the Tornadoes," Trump wrote on Twitter.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, R, followed with an emergency declaration Monday for Grady, Harris and Talbot counties.

Sunday's tornadoes were the deadliest in the United States since May 20, 2013, when a category EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people and leaving more than 200 injured, according to data from the Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. Ten people died in tornadoes in the United States in 2018.

The Weather Service logged at least three dozen tornado reports Sunday as twisters swept across Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, but none was as severe as those in Lee County.

Victims were transported to hospitals with very serious injuries, and the East Alabama Medical Center announced 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 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 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.

Once his phone started shrieking with emergency warnings, Fillmer took cover in his laundry room with his wife and their three cats and puppy. Jacky Hornaday, who lives several miles from the unincorporated rural community of Beauregard, told The Post that she and her three children hunkered down in the bathtub for nearly two hours, with stuffed animals and blankets to keep the children distracted. The sirens, she said, kept going and going.

Scott Peake, a storm chaser, was right on one twister's tail.

He watched it skip across Highway 51, a hulking gray rotating blob. All the yellow headlights whizzed past him, fleeing the storm, while Peake charged toward it, about a quarter-mile from its path, he said.

"I was close enough that I could hear the roar," he told The Post. "It sounded like I was in a waterfall."

The 33-year-old storm chaser has tracked numerous twisters, but the damage he witnessed Sunday was extraordinary. One scene stood out to him: 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 Gainor told The Post that more than two dozen homes in the town of approximately 10,000 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. Nearby, a longtime family home that his great-grandfather built 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.

This article was written by Meagan Flynn, Allyson Chiu and Alex Horton, reporters for The Washington Post.

The Washington Post's Amy B Wang and Matthew Cappucci contributed to this story.