Rescuers in the US state of Alabama have been searching through the rubble of collapsed buildings looking for more dead and wounded after tornadoes killed at least 23 people.
The storms – the first of the season in the southeastern United States – took many by surprise. More than two dozen tornadoes were reported across the region as the severe weather system headed towards the Atlantic seaboard.
In one county of Alabama alone the death toll is higher than the number of people killed by all tornadoes across the whole of the United States last year.
Lee County, some 100 kilometres southwest of Atlanta, bore the brunt of the destruction. Worst hit was the community of Beauregard.
Victims ranged in age from children as young as six, to pensioners in their eighties. As Sunday night fell some people were still missing.
The tornadoes ripped through the county in the middle of Sunday afternoon, bringing winds said to be equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane.
Homes were destroyed, trees and power lines brought down, and debris was strewn everywhere. The roof of a warehouse was ripped off and a pylon came down across the US Route 280 highway.
Thousands suffered power cuts and although many had had electricity restored by Sunday evening, as darkness approached temperatures were set to fall to near freezing.
Emergency services in Lee County said 150 first responders were doing a “phenomenal job”. But Sheriff Jay Jones said a major challenge was the “sheer volume of debris” left by destroyed homes.
“We’ve still got people being pulled out of rubble,” county coroner Bill Harris told the Birmingham News on Sunday evening. “We’re going to be here all night.”
Fire trucks were sent to rescue people in zones that could not be reached by ambulances. Dozens of people were admitted to hospital, some reportedly with very serious injuries.
Some criticism of weather forecasts has been reported, with people questioning why more specific tornado warnings were not given, earlier than the general ones that were issued.
A state of emergency declared for flooding on February 23 has been extended statewide. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said that more severe weather might be on the way.
As colder air swept across Georgia and Alabama, warnings have also been issued in South Carolina and Florida.