After 'Monster' Tornado; Search for Victims Drags on in Lee County, Ala.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Chris Darden said preliminary analysis indicates the main storm in Lee County was an EF-4 tornado packing winds estimated at 170 mph.

by Mike Cason, Alabama Media Group, Birmingham / March 5, 2019

(TNS) - Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said this afternoon search and rescue efforts today in the Beauregard community have so far not revealed any more fatalities from Sunday’s tornadoes, with the death toll standing at 23, but Jones said “dozens” of people are still unaccounted for.

“The search teams have worked the areas of the most significant damage,” Jones said. "I am pleased to report we have not recovered any further victims from the areas that we have initially searched. But I want to offer a caveat with that, that we have not completed our searches."

Jones and other officials gave an update this afternoon at Beauregard High School, which sits in a rural area on a two-lane highway south of Opelika and Auburn, not far from where the most powerful of Sunday’s tornadoes plowed through, snapping trees and shredding homes. Gov. Kay Ivey spoke at the news conference and pledged state and federal support in the recovery effort.

Jones said the fatalities are in an area framed by Alabama Highway 51 and Lee County highways 38 and 39.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Chris Darden said preliminary analysis indicates the main storm in Lee County was an EF-4 tornado packing winds estimated at 170 mph. Darden said the tornado’s track of was at least 24 miles long.

“Almost a mile wide,” Darden said. “A monster tornado as it moved across the area.”

A separate tornado that hit Macon County and moved into Lee County was likely an EF-1, Darden said. A storm that hit Eufaula and Barbour County was likely at least an EF-1, he said.

Authorities are working with family and friends of the missing to determine how many are still unaccounted for.

UAB Hospital in Birmingham confirmed to AL.com Monday that it received seven patients from the tornadoes. Their conditions were not publicly released.

Agencies from around Alabama and parts of Georgia are assisting in the search and recovery effort.

Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said the process of identifying victims was close to completion but that six victims could not be initially identified from physical characteristics.

“We believe we know who those individuals are,” Harris said. "We have talked to the families."

Harris said one of the 23 victims died at a hospital.

“Once we get into some more areas, I’m not going to be surprised if we don’t come up with some more deceased,” Harris said. “Hopefully we won’t. But it’s been a long, long night.”

Harris said he planned to start meeting with families of victims at an undisclosed location this afternoon.

Harris said there were at least three children among the victims, ages 6, 9 and 10.

Ivey said she got a call from President Trump about 8:15 this morning. Ivey said she told the president the state would like to expedite the process of assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She said Trump promised to do that. Ivey said the president told her, “You folks in Alabama are wonderful people and surely in your time of need, I will support you.”

Ivey said the state was in mourning but that Lee County would bounce back.

“To know Alabama is to know that we are a tight-knit community of people and today each of us mourns the loss of life of our fellow Alabamians,” Ivey said. "Our hearts and prayers go out to these people who have lost their family members and friends and all those who are impacted by these storms.

"Amidst this tragedy, we have a job to do. We must build back Lee County to its feet. Today, all of Alabama is focused on Lee County. And y’all as your governor, I want to you to know I’ve got your back. We will do everything in our power to help the citizens of Lee County recover and recover and come back stronger.

The tornado ravaged a small neighborhood in Smiths Station on Lee County 430, where Greg Molinari and many of his neighbors sorted through the damage on Monday morning. Molinari was upbeat even though his home was destroyed. He said he and his wife, Susan, survived the storm because they took his daughter-in-law’s advice and put large cooking pots over their heads as makeshift helmets.

“The sirens were going off quite frequently and we said we better take this very seriously. That was about three o’clock,” Molinari said.

“And my wife and I received a text from my daughter in law. She said get in the bathroom and put pots on your head. Well, the bathroom wasn’t a great idea because it’s an exterior wall. But we went in the hallway, which is a small, confined area here. And we did put big cooking pots over our head. Saved our lives. The ceiling crashed in on us.”

The tornado ripped the roof off Molinari’s house.

“And we were trapped in there,” Molinari said. “We couldn’t get out even though we were OK. Our neighbor across the street here, he came screaming over, ‘Is anybody in there? Is anybody in there?’ We said, ‘Yeah. We can’t get out.’ He dug us out.”

Molinari said he and his wife then rode out the storm at the neighbor’s house.

“Him and his wife, his daughter and his dog and us, we all hunkered down in there," Molinari said.

Molinari said another neighbor he didn’t know helped in their rescue.

Molinari said he had reason to be positive despite the disaster.

“We have a very strong faith," Molinari said. "We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our God Jehovah takes care of us. We believe he helped to protect us. He’ll also help us recover from all this.”

On the same street as Greg Molinari, Taylor Grantham was home with her husband and children on Sunday when the tornado arrived.

“There were definitely sirens,” Grantham said. “We had a warning but we didn’t really take it seriously until my husband seen it, right before it hit us. And he slammed the door.

“He said, ‘It’s here,’ and he grabbed a mattress and covered us and we just were in the hallway and we stayed under the mattress until it was over.”

Grantham said they had holes in the roof and a wall on the back of the house caved in. Overall, she said her house sustained less damage than many in the neighborhood.

“We were just praying that our house wasn’t going to get ripped open. And we came out and started checking on all our neighbors and saw that their houses were gone,” Grantham said.

She said her husband and several other men from the neighborhood helped lift a fallen roof off a woman.

“It took five men to lift the roof up to get her out,” Grantham said. “She was injured but she was OK. She was able to crawl out and walk on her own.”

On U.S. 280 in Smiths Station, David McBride stood by the wreckage of his business, the Wild Buck Saloon. What’s left of the bar is in the tornado’s clearly marked path and close to the crumpled remains of a cell phone tower that had to be cleared from the four-lane highway.

McBride said he arrived at his bar Sunday afternoon to do a favor for a customer.

“I pulled up in here in my truck and I seen all the stuff swirling in the air,” McBride said. “So I took off around that pole and got in front of that store just about the time everything started blowing apart.”

McBride thought he was safely ahead of the storm.

“Somebody told there was one coming but it was 45 miles from here or 45 minutes,” McBride said. “So I was coming over here to get a friend’s wife’s purse that she left the night before and meeting him over here. And then when I pulled up in here and seen all that, got in front of that store over there and watched everything blow to pieces.

“And I would have been in that building if it had been four more minutes, further that way, I would have been inside that building.”

Asked what he saw and heard, McBride said, “I heard a train coming and I seen that tower fall and as I got to the edge of that store wall there I seen the roof blow off my bar and then a couple of seconds later the store just exploded.”

McBride said he wasn’t aware of anyone being hurt in the immediate vicinity of where he was. He said he has owned the bar for about six years and said he did not know what his plans for it were.

Smiths Station Mayor Fred Copeland said there were two injuries in the city but no fatalities.

“This storm was devastating,” Copeland said. "The one thing I can say is whether you live in Texas, whether you live in Arkansas or wherever, if you hear a siren, take heed. Yesterday it come up so quick that we were not able to really realize what was going on.

“It is devastating to our city. We will rebuild. Beauregard will rebuild. But our hearts in Smith Station are with our neighbors in Beauregard.”

The Lee County Emergency Management Agency is accepting information from people with missing family members and friends.