Lashawn Wilson sat crammed between her 72-year-old mother, her son and her husband in the bathroom of her mom’s home.
Her family barely had enough time to get to her mom’s brick house from their mobile home when the first alert sounded through the television, warning of 70 mph winds, Wilson told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
“We can make this,” she said she thought. “We’ve been through hurricanes, we’ve been through strong winds before.”
The tornado that ripped through Lee County, Alabama actually carried 170 mph winds. It had nearly a mile-wide track and ground along for 65 miles, killing 23 people.
“We lost children, mothers, fathers, neighbors and friends,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Monday.
The deadly twister was upgraded Monday to an EF-4 tornado, leaving the small county bordering Georgia in tatters.
An aerial view showed Jessica Chandler’s home was removed from its foundation in the storm.
The tornado’s path of destruction looked “as if someone had taken a blade and just scraped the ground,” Sheriff Jay Jones said Monday.
And it wasn’t the only tornado to hit the ground. Two EF-1s also hit the area, one in Lee and Macon counties and another in Barbour County to the south. Tornadoes are measured on the Enhanced Fujita scale — named for the weather researcher who developed it — from 0 to 5 based on intensity and damage caused.
“This is the worst natural disaster that has ever occurred in Lee County,” county EMA Director Kathryn Carson said Monday, according to CNN affiliate WSFA. “Most of us cannot remember anything ever creating this much of a loss of life and injuries in our citizens.”
Stories of survival
Seconds after Wilson saw the first alert Sunday, the electricity went out. She grabbed her mom’s portable oxygen tank and shut herself in the bathroom with her family.
“I could hear the roaring coming, nearing,” she said. “At that moment, that’s when (we) heard the house just being torn apart… second after that, everything started pressing in on us.”
“We all got pushed down flat, we were like dominoes on top of each other. My son was on top of me and he said ‘Mom, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.'”
All around, Wilson could see nothing but debris, as the wind whipped through the home.
Another survivor told CNN her boyfriend suffered broken bones and puncture wounds as he clutched tightly to a couch as winds lashed their home.
Ivey extended the state of emergency that had been issued last month due to tornadoes and severe weather and made a request for a federal major disaster declaration.
Rescue efforts will continue Tuesday. Crews have been searching through ravaged homes and rubble in the hardest-hit areas. The death toll may rise after some areas are searched again, Sheriff Jones said, according to WSFA.
About a dozen volunteers from Louisiana’s Cajun Navy traveled to Alabama Monday to help with recovery efforts, according to CNN affiliate WAFB.
Those killed include four children — two boys and two girls — and adults, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said.
It’s still unknown how many people were injured, but more than 70 people were treated at nearby hospitals. A spokeswoman for the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital said patients admitted there suffered conditions ranging from serious to fair.
Searchers looking for the few people who are still accounted for were working with heavier equipment on Tuesday.
All 23 victims have been positively identified, their families have been notified and the bodies have been released to respective funeral homes, the coroner said. The names were to be released later Tuesday.
Damage in Georgia
A tornado destroyed more than 15 structures in neighboring Talbotton, Georgia, including multiple homes and an apartment building, the Talbot County emergency management director said.
Vinton Copeland, pastor at Powell Baptist Church in Talbotton, told CNN people there did not expect a tornado to hit.
“Complete apartments are gone and damaged. We have a shelter at our county high school for those affected. It’s devastating and houses are gone and there are power lines decimated. Tough time,” he said.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in Grady, Harris and Talbot counties, in the southern part of the state.
He said almost two dozen homes were completely destroyed, up to 40 homes sustained some sort of damage and a couple of businesses were destroyed. Georgia Emergency Management Director Homer Bryson is working with local officials to restore power to approximately 3,000 people in the region.
“It’s just unreal,” Wilson said, still in disbelief. Her life, and small Alabama community will never be the same.
“It’s not anything I would have imagined for me and my family in a million years. Not for our area, not for our community.”
“The community will need a lot of help to grow and regrow, we’ve lost family members… we’ve lost friends, all of my neighbors around me, it’s a lot to process,” she said. “I’m just hopeful we can get past this.”