ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in three Georgia counties after a series of deadly tornados struck central and southwest Georgia and Alabama on Sunday. The governor’s office said on Monday that more counties could be added to the list that includes Grady, Harris and Talbot counties. A state of emergency allows state resources to help residents recover from disasters.
“With extensive storm damage in Grady, Harris, and Talbot counties, it is imperative that we take swift action to help affected Georgians and deploy state resources in ongoing response and recovery efforts,” Kemp said late Monday morning. “This declaration immediately dispatches additional first responders and assistance as we continue to assess the damage. Throughout this process, I have received regular updates from state and local leaders. Based on this information, I will travel to affected areas this afternoon with emergency management personnel to witness the damage firsthand.”
The death toll climbed to 23 Monday after the powerful storm system generated multiple tornadoes that leveled homes and businesses in Alabama and Georgia. Rescuers prepared to continue sifting through a debris field Monday that stretched a half-mile wide in rural Lee County in eastern Alabama. The rubble includes pieces of mobile homes, trees, power lines, vehicles, restaurants and even a cell tower.
A tornado that swept through Lee County packed winds of around 160 mph or more. It left a path of destruction that county Sheriff Jay Jones called “incredible.”
Witnesses described what sounds like a war zone.
“It was just destruction,” Levi Baker, who lives nearby, told The Associated Press. “There were mobile homes gone. Frames on the other side of the road.”
Baker said he used a chain saw to help clear a path for ambulances and other first responders. He saw both people and animals dead, and said some houses had been destroyed. One house was swept off its foundation and sat in the middle of a roadway.
Both adults and children were among the dead. The youngest victim was 6 years old, the sheriff said. CNN reported that as many as a dozen tornadoes touched down across Alabama and Georgia.
The NWS confirmed the first tornado was at least an EF-3 and measured about a half-mile wide.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey tweeted that state emergency officials are assisting local governments.
Numerous tornado warnings were posted across parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday afternoon. Around 3:10 p.m., the Lee County emergency officials tweeted that a possible tornado was on the ground near Highway 51. Residents in Smith’s Station were told to seek shelter immediately.
Around 8 p.m. a possible tornado was reported in Cairo, Georgia. Damage was reported in that community as well.
Patch Staff Writer Daniel Hampton contributed to this report.
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