After deadly tornadoes, ‘everything was flattened’

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.

Danny Allen and Dax Leandro, in background wearing hat, search through the remnants of Chris Sward’s home

Alabama officials said at least three children were killed, including a six-year-old and a nine-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 170mph. 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 neighbours 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 1.58pm – 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 – Photos and text by The Washington Post