By Morgan Bryce
Local and state officials updated the public on the damage and death toll caused by tornadoes that struck Lee County yesterday, part of a larger outbreak of severe weather which affected portions of Alabama and Georgia.
In a press conference held this afternoon at Beauregard High School, Chris Darden of the National Weather Service confirmed that the tornado that hit Beauregard was a .87 miles wide EF-4 with winds of nearly 170 mph that traveled along a 24-mile path.
The tornado was the deadliest since the Moore, Oklahoma tornado in May 2013, and the most significant natural disaster in Lee County history, according to Lee County Emergency Management Agency director Kathy Carson.
“(This information) was based on our findings at County Road 39, which is nearby. There are two other tornado tracks that we’re assessing right now … and the (one in Macon County) probably crossed the track of the EF-4 in some spots, and will be an EF-1 most likely,” Darden said.
Sheriff Jay Jones and coroner Bill Harris confirmed that the death toll currently sits at 23 people, with three of those being children ages six, nine and 10. While search-and-rescue efforts continue, Jones encourages concerned citizens to wait patiently as first responders perform their duties.
Carson said storm preparations began as early as last Thursday morning, part of a concerted effort to make citizens aware of the weather threats faced on Sunday.
“We knew ahead of time and we took it seriously and were able to ramp up our warnings to the public and get their attention and help them know that they needed to go ahead and figure out what they needed to do,” Carson said.
The extent of damage stretched beyond Beauregard into eastern portions of Lee County, including the Salem community and Smiths Station. Smiths Station Mayor Bubba Copeland verified that there were two people injured and 24 people rendered homeless in his city because of the storm.
Sunday’s events did not go unnoticed, as state and national media have provided coverage on the storms.
President Donald Trump tweeted his support and called Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey Monday morning to personally offer his support and express his concern for those affected.
“This morning at 8:15 a.m., President Trump called my cell phone and wanted to know about the devastation. I told that we certainly had a tragic loss of (lives) and lot of property damage,” Ivey said. “He asked what he could do, and I said, ‘Mr. President, we are working with FEMA. Could you pass (along) the request for (an) expedited disaster recovery declaration?’ He responded immediately and said of course you’ll have my support for a state I love.”
Ivey added that she learned earlier today that affected areas will receive “A Plus treatment” from FEMA following her conversation with the President.
Waves of support have flooded into Lee County during the last 24 hours. In some cases, crews of volunteers arrived on the scene to clean and clear roads for first responders.
“The responses we’ve received to this is (incredible). We’re very fortunate to be in Lee County in the state of Alabama … we are eternally grateful for all the outside support we’ve received,” Jones said. “The folks in Beauregard are resilient people. They’re community oriented and you will not find a stronger group of people anywhere.”
Among the national organizations present are the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse.
Providence Baptist Church in Beauregard will serve as the main recovery operations center while First Baptist Church Opelika is an auxiliary.
Other details and findings will be announced tomorrow in a press conference scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow.
“We will overcome this loss. We’ve done it before, we can do it again and we will do it together,” Ivey said.
Storm victims with pressing needs are encouraged to call 211 for help finding and receiving local services.