The death toll has now increased to 23 people killed by a tornado in Lee County, Alabama, on Sunday as severe storms left a trail of destruction, authorities said. Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said the damage was "catastrophic" based on the destruction of homes in the area, CBS affiliate WRBL-TV reported. Jones confirmed children were among the dead and some people are still believed to be missing and a search and rescue operation was ongoing.
Jones told WRBL-TV he "cannot recall, at least in the last 50 years ... a situation where we have had this loss of life that we experienced today."
About 150 first responders were called in to assist with the devastation. Multiple homes were destroyed or damaged in Beauregard, about 60 miles east of Montgomery, Rita Smith, a spokesperson for Lee County Emergency Management Agency, told The Associated Press.
The area was dark and electricity appeared to be knocked out in many places late Sunday. Pieces of metal debris and tree branches littered the roadside.
Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said he expected the death toll to rise to at least 20. "We've still got people being pulled out of rubble," Harris told Al.com on Sunday evening. "We're going to be here all night."
Harris told the AP he had to call in help from the state, because there were more bodies than his four-person office can handle.
Radar and video evidence showed what looked like a large tornado crossing the area near Beauregard shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday, said Meteorologist Meredith Wyatt with the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service.
"Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives in the storms that hit Lee County today. Praying for their families & everyone whose homes or businesses were affected," Gov. Kay Ivey tweeted Sunday.
No deaths had been reported Sunday evening from storm-damaged Alabama counties outside Lee County, said Gregory Robinson, spokesman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. But he said crews were still surveying damage in several counties in the southwestern part of the state.
Numerous tornado warnings were posted across parts of Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina on Sunday afternoon as the powerful storm system raced across the region.
In rural Talbotton, Georgia, about 80 miles south of Atlanta, a handful of people were injured by either powerful straight-line winds or a tornado that destroyed several mobile homes and damaged other buildings, said Leigh Ann Erenheim, director of the Talbot County Emergency Management Agency.
Televised broadcast news footage showed smashed buildings with rooftops blown away, cars overturned and debris everywhere. Trees all around had been snapped bare of branches.
"The last check I had was between six and eight injuries," Erenheim said. "From what I understand it was minor injuries, though one fellow did say his leg might be broken."
She said searches of damaged homes and structures had turned up no serious injuries or deaths. Henry Wilson of the Peach County Emergency Management Agency near Macon in central Georgia said a barn had been destroyed and trees and power poles had been snapped, leaving many in the area without power.
Authorities said a tornado was confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle late Sunday afternoon. A portion of Interstate 10 on the Florida Panhandle was blocked in one direction for a time in Walton County in the aftermath, said Don Harrigan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Tallahassee.
"There's a squall line moving through the area," Harrigan told AP. "And when you have a mature line of storms moving into an area where low level winds are very strong, you tend to have tornadoes developing. It's a favorable environment for tornadoes."
The threat of severe weather continued into the late-night hours. A tornado watch was in effect for much of eastern Georgia, including Athens, Augusta and Savannah. The tornado watch also covered a large area of South Carolina, including the cities of Charleston and Columbia.