By Deborah Bloom
BEAUREGARD, Ala. (Reuters) - Alabama residents and rescue teams on Monday sifted through the splintered remnants of homes torn apart by a string of tornadoes that killed at least 23 people, including three children, in the deadliest burst of twisters to hit the United States since 2013.
The tornadoes, spawned by a late-winter "supercell" thunderstorm, ripped through Lee County on Sunday with cyclonic winds of up to 170 miles (274 km) per hour, at step four of the six-step Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale of tornado strength.
Mobile homes were tossed on their sides and ripped open, their contents strewn over a ravaged landscape littered with debris and gnarled, uprooted trees. In some places, shreds of houses hung from the limbs of the few trees left standing.
"It looks almost as if someone took a giant knife and just scraped the ground. There are slabs where homes formerly stood, debris everywhere, trees are snapped," Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told a morning news conference.
At least three twisters struck the area, in eastern Alabama near the Georgia border, within a few hours on Sunday afternoon.
The worst of the damage and all of the known fatalities occurred in and around the tiny community of Beauregard, about 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Auburn, said Chris Darden, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Birmingham.
Besides one EF-4 tornado, storm trackers have confirmed two smaller twisters classified as EF-1, each of which packed winds of up to 110 mph (177 km per hour), according to Darden. "We'll be examining more areas tomorrow," he said.
In addition to 23 confirmed deaths, more than 50 people were reported injured, authorities said, marking the greatest loss of life from a tornado since an EF-5 storm tore through Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013, killing 24 people and injuring 375 others.
Three of the dead were children, ages 6, 9 and 10, County Coroner Bill Harris said at an afternoon news conference. Family members identified two of the young victims.
An initial canvass of the stricken area turned up no additional bodies, but Jones left open the possibility that more victims could be found once the search was completed.
Darden said in an interview that "a few people" remained unaccounted for, though he said he did not know the precise number. All the dead were in the Beauregard area, he said.
All but six of the victims were identified, and investigators think they know the identities of the others, Harris said.
'THAT'S HALF MY HOME'
Jenifer Vernon, a 40-year-old grocery store attendant, surveyed the wreckage of her flattened home, spread in piles on either side of her Beauregard street.
"That's half my home," said Vernon, pointing to the debris. "That's the other half." She was in the nearby town of Opelika with her husband and 14-year-old daughter when the tornadoes hit.
Looking over splintered pieces of wood and the remains of kitchen appliances, Vernon said she had lost another home to fire last year.
"We'll bounce back from this," she added.
U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be helping.
"FEMA has been told directly by me to give the A Plus treatment to the Great State of Alabama and the wonderful people who have been so devastated by the Tornadoes," Trump said.
The death toll was more than double the 10 people killed by tornadoes in the United States for all of 2018, according to government data.
Darden said the latest twisters, which are common to the Gulf Coast region this time of year, grew out of a larger storm system that swept out of the Plains to bring thunderstorms to the Deep South and a wintry mix of precipitation to the Ohio Valley, mid-Atlantic region and Northeast.
Julie Morrison, a 61-year-old produce manager who has lived in Beauregard for 19 years, said she survived the storm by hiding in a bathtub with her husband.
On Monday, all that remained of her home was its concrete foundation, piled under heaps of wood and broken furniture, with the tattered remainders of a trailer wrapped around a tree.
"It's just devastating to see this," Morrison said. "I just thank God that me and my husband survived."
(Additional reporting by Joseph Ax and Gabriella Borter in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)