Alabama residents and rescue workers dug through the remnants of homes destroyed by a spate of tornadoes that killed at least 23 people. Picture: AP Photo/David Goldman

Beauregard - Alabama residents and rescue workers on Monday dug through the remnants of homes destroyed by a spate of tornadoes that killed at least 23 people, including two children, the deadliest U.S. twisters in almost six years.

The tornadoes ripped through Lee County on Sunday with winds of at least 150 miles per hour (240 kph), at the midpoint of the six-step Enhanced Fujita scale, which meteorologists use to measure tornado strength.

At least two and as many as five tornadoes hit an area of eastern Alabama near the Georgia border in the space of a few hours on Sunday afternoon, with some of the worst damage in the tiny community of Beauregard, according to the National Weather Service.

Mobile homes were tossed on their sides and ripped open, their contents strewn on the ground, live television images showed. Pieces of homes hung from trees that were not flattened by the storm.

More than 50 people were reported injured and the death toll is expected to rise, authorities said, which could make the storms deadlier than the tornado that tore through Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013, killing 24 people.

"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. "I've not seen this level of destruction ever in my experience in Lee County."

At least two children died, including one as young as 6, Jones said. Family members identified one as a 10-year-old girl and another as a 6-year-old boy.

Two of the injured were in critical condition and at least 20 people were missing, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris told CNN.


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, adding, "We'll bounce back from this."

US President Donald Trump said on Twitter on Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency 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.

Temperatures in the state fell to 36 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Celsius) on Monday, leaving those without heat struggling with the cold.

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.

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."