By Morgan Bryce
Thirty-one days ago today, Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones remembers the scene when he arrived at the intersection of Highway 51 and Lee County Road 38 in Beauregard.
Only 15 minutes before, a .87 mile-wide EF-4 tornado hit “like a blade scraping the earth,” according to Jones’s description.
“I didn’t know how large the tornado was at that time, but I remember thinking the damage stretched nearly a mile. It was just incredible,” Jones said.
Walking down Lee County Road 38 and other nearby side roads, Jones said he witnessed individuals out with chainsaws clearing roads for other first responders, neighbors helping neighbors and strangers aiding strangers.
“It was impressive how many people we knew were coming to help, but especially the number that were already there immediately after the tornado passed. As long as I live, I’ll never forget seeing the faces of people I know who were affected by the storm but were out helping others, even if their home was severely damaged, or just gone,” Jones said. “It really gives you a look into the heart of what this community is all about … despite what their circumstance may be, they were out there helping their neighbor.”
Minutes after evaluating the situation, Jones invoked the mutual-aid clause, requesting assistance from other sheriffs statewide. Law enforcement agents from Chambers, Macon, Russell and Tallapoosa counties were already on the ground providing assistance, and Jones accepted the invitations of others from Mississippi and Tennessee to “come on and help us.”
Setting up a command post at that intersection, Jones and other Lee County Sheriff’s Office representatives assumed leadership of coordinating search-and-recovery efforts, maintaining access in and out of the hardest hit areas as well as frequent patrolling of areas most susceptible to looting.
As darkness began encroaching on that Sunday evening and death toll continued rising, Jones said they made the decision to halt search-and-recovery efforts until the following morning, the beginning of what would be a “long and emotional week ahead.”
Although all 23 tornado victims were found that afternoon and evening, Jones and other law enforcement agencies were responsible for locating the others who were missing. By the mid to latter portion of the week, all had been found and accounted for.
Jones represented the LCSO at five press conferences held that week at Beauregard High School, sharing his knowledge with local, national and international media on the “greatest natural disaster to ever hit Lee County.”
On Wednesday and Friday of that week, Jones and his team helped coordinate visits from Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania to the portions of the Beauregard community most ravaged by the storm.
The focus has since shifted to recovery mode, but Jones and his team are still diligently helping with recovery efforts in Beauregard and Smiths Station, as well as preventing tornado survivors from being scammed by unauthorized contractors or repairmen looking to take advantage of the situation.
“These type people do shoddy work, if any work at all. We’re trying to get the word out to people to make sure they’re dealing with reputable people who should have the proper identification and registration,” Jones said. “We’re also encouraging folks who haven’t registered with FEMA to do so if they haven’t and make sure they’re in line to receive help.”
Though it is a scenario Jones said he would desire to never experience again, he believes the state, nation and world have witnessed the true heart of this community he has served for nearly 21 years.
“I just can’t say enough about the local organizations that stepped up to help and lead during this time. There was an overwhelming sense of the community’s desire to help that just permeated and underlies everything that’s happened,” Jones said. “Looking at that, it just makes me really proud to live in Lee County. I really can’t think of another place I’d rather be.”