MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It has been a difficult day in Alabama, where cleanup and recovery continue after a series of tornadoes raked across the southern part of the state. Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones says the damage is the worst the county has seen in at least 50 years.
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JAY JONES: I would describe the damage that we have seen in the area as catastrophic. There are simply - in some locations, the complete residences are gone. We're finding materials from one location up to half a mile away.
KELLY: Authorities put the death toll at 23. They are prepared for that number to go up as crews continue searching for survivors. The worst destruction took place just south of Auburn, and that is where we find NPR's Russell Lewis. Hey there, Russell.
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Hey.
KELLY: So describe for me - just paint a picture of what you have been able to see as you've been out reporting today.
LEWIS: Well, it's - you know, it's pretty bad, as you'd imagine. I mean, this tornado was massive. It was a mile wide at times. It was rated as an EF4, and that means that the winds were approaching about 170 miles per hour.
You know, you see pine trees that have been snapped in half, splintered, really, like toothpicks, power poles broken with tree limbs pulling the power lines down. You know, there are entire houses that stood in neighborhoods for decades that are just gone. It's just the concrete slab that remains. And, you know, as is typical with tornadoes, there are other homes and neighborhoods that the storms just skipped over, and they're fine.
And, you know, and I should point out one other thing - that I've reported on a lot of tornadoes and their aftermath over the years. I've never seen a situation like it is here. It's cold. It's in the 40s. Normally after a tornado, it's hot and muggy. So it's just not easy.
KELLY: Now, we can hear some vehicles going past behind you as you're talking, which suggests the roads, at least where you are, are open. What are the biggest challenges on the ground at this moment?
LEWIS: Well, perhaps the biggest problem will be the darkness. And that's when recovery efforts really have to slow down. It's just not safe. You know, neighborhoods - some just don't have power. There are downed electrical lines, not to mention all of the debris - the shattered boards, you know, the lots of nails that are scattered around the ground. It's really not safe to drive or really even to walk around. You often see people who get a lot of flat tires after disasters. They step on nails. And it's just not easy in the days after a big disaster like this to try to get things back in order.
KELLY: I want to ask about the death toll. One, of course, regrets any deaths in a situation like this. Twenty-three seems unusually high. Do we have a sense of why so many people have died in this storm?
LEWIS: Well, we don't yet. You know, the tornadoes were part of a massive storm system that rolled across Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. You know, they were not a surprise. For days, forecasters had warned of severe weather and the threat of tornadoes on Sunday. Even some of the forecast maps had accurately predicted the exact locations of where these tornadoes ultimately touched down. But still, even with the warnings, it's hard to survive something that was as big and wide and devastating as this storm system turned into.
It hit in the early afternoon. A lot of people were home from church. They were not at work. It was loud. Some people said they never heard any tornado sirens. But sirens are really designed to warn people of impending storms when they're outside, not inside. So people need to have those NOAA weather radios and smartphones that sound an alert during an emergency like an approaching tornado.
KELLY: That is NPR's Russell Lewis reporting from Beauregard, Ala. Russell, thank you. Stay safe.
LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.