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After deadly tornado, survivors face freezing temperatures amid power outages

Tornadoes tore through the southeastern U.S. over the weekend, killing more than 20 people so far, though the death toll may rise as rescue workers comb through rubble. Cutting a path more than a mile wide and 24 miles long, the tornado was the deadliest in the U.S. in six years. William Brangham talks to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jeremy Redmon, reporting from Lee County, Alabama.

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  • William Brangham:

    Search crews in Alabama have spent this day looking through tornado wreckage, hoping to find nothing. Sunday's storm ripped apart everything it hit, with winds of 170 miles-an-hour. At least 23 people were killed, making it deadliest tornado in the United States in six years.

    In Beauregard, Alabama, homes have been reduced to piles of debris along a county highway. The deadly tornado tore through this rural community just 60 miles northeast of Montgomery near the Georgia border on Sunday. The storm cut a path nearly one mile wide and 24 miles long after touching down. It snapped pine trees in half, wrapped metal siding around their trunks and ripped down power lines and a cell phone tower, now splayed across the highway.

    Kevin and Becky Boyd were inside their mobile home when the tornado hit.

  • Kevin Boyd:

    I got underneath the bed, and the trailer's upside down in the backyard on top of my shed.

  • Becky Boyd:

    I felt it rolling. I tumbled over and ended up on my stomach, and I had to crawl out once I could get my legs straightened, and he lifted stuff off of me.

  • William Brangham:

    The Boyds escaped serious injury, but at least one of their neighbors was killed.

  • Jay Jones:

    It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and just scrapped the ground. There are slabs where homes formally stood. There is debris everywhere.

  • William Brangham:

    Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones warned today that the death toll is likely to rise as rescue and recovery efforts continue.

  • Jay Jones:

    I have not seen this type of level of devastation ever in my experience here in Lee County.

  • William Brangham:

    Overall, the tornado that struck Alabama was one of more than a dozen to hit parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida over the weekend.

  • Kevin Laws:

    When you get into this kind of range, like 165 miles per hour, you start to see not only exterior walls that collapse on well-built homes, but you also start to see the interior walls.

  • William Brangham:

    Kevin Laws is chief scientist at the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama. He says the storm quickly intensified after a front of cold arctic air slammed into warm, humid southern air.

    And while warnings went out, Laws says homes in the area are simply not built to sustain such a storm.

  • Kevin Laws:

    The teams are out assessing, where a lot of manufactured homes once were are now completely destroyed. So, if you're in one of those homes, it's probably about the worst place you could possibly be.

  • William Brangham:

    Just across the state line from Beauregard, in Georgia, another tornado touched down in Talbot County, about 80 miles south of Atlanta. Today, residents surveyed what was left, picking up clothing and other personal items, some thrown hundreds of feet from their yard.

    One woman said she prayed for her family as the tornado blew through.

  • Woman:

    My babies, I just covered them just like this, calling on Jesus, just kept saying, Jesus, cover us. Cover us, Jesus.

  • William Brangham:

    A handful of Georgians were hurt, but Governor Brian Kemp today said the state escaped the worst.

  • Gov. Brian Kemp, R-Ga.:

    We certainly dodged a bullet, and we're thankful for that.

  • William Brangham:

    Back in Alabama, rescue efforts are continuing, but the storm system brought freezing temperatures in its wake, and some 8,000 people are without power.

    And now, for an on-the-ground report, we're joined by phone by Jeremy Redmon of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He's in Lee County, Alabama, today.

    Jeremy, thank you very much for being here.

    The pictures that we're seeing of the devastation there are just horrible. I wonder if you could give us a sense of what you're seeing on the ground now.

  • Jeremy Redmon:

    Yes.

    The sheriff here, Jay Jones, gave an adequate description, I thought. He said it looked like someone had taken a knife and scraped the ground with it. I went out there today in Beauregard, the hardest-hit area, and there was this yellow installation hanging from the trees.

    One house has got a Coca-Cola truck up on its side in the front yard. Some homes were just completely destroyed, their roofs taken off, cars on their side. It's pretty grim.

  • William Brangham:

    And we're hearing that the number of victims is expected to go up, as search-and-rescue efforts continue.

    Can you tell us about the people that we already know who have who have been killed in this tragedy?

  • Jeremy Redmon:

    Yes.

    Unfortunately, they have said that 23 people have been killed. Among them are three children, ages 6, 9 and 10. They have not identified any of them. The oldest is in the 70s or 80s, I understand.

    But it's still certainly possible, they're telling us, as they come to the wreckage, that they may find more.

  • William Brangham:

    And as you have been hearing from people that you're talking to who obviously survived this storm, what kind of stories have they been telling you?

  • Jeremy Redmon:

    Yes, it's a pretty harrowing, stories of people scrambling to get into their bathroom, in the bathtub, in the closet.

    The sound of a freight train is how they described the tornado coming. People are openly weeping here. There's just a lot of stunned expressions. People are still grappling with the devastation that has hit their community.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understand it's quite cold there now. And there's still thousands of people without power.

    More broadly, how are people holding up?

  • Jeremy Redmon:

    Yes, it was really striking.

    This morning, around 10:00, 10:30, there were dozens of people that filed into the Beauregard High School gymnasium, stood in a circle and held hands and led a prayer. And there were people openly crying during the service. But it was certainly a sign of solidarity.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understood you heard from one local reverend and about what happened to his particular family.

  • Jeremy Redmon:

    Certainly.

    So this is Providence Baptist Church that is serving as a shelter for storm victims. The associate pastor there, Chuck Adams, said he got an urgent call from his daughter that her future father-in-law was trapped underneath the wreckage of his own home in the Beauregard area.

    His family apparently had taken shelter in the house. The storm took home — this is a modular home — and threw it 70 yards, according to Reverend Adams, destroying it and trapping this Alabama state trooper, Robbie Burroughs, underneath the debris.

    He was rescued, but he suffered serious injuries, a concussion, broken ribs, and a back injury.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Jeremy Redmon of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, thank you very much.

  • Jeremy Redmon:

    My pleasure.

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