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At least 23 dead as tornado devastates Alabama

Deadly tornadoes in Alabama

Rescuers prepared Monday to tear through the rubble of mobile homes and houses in search of survivors of a powerful tornado that rampaged through southeast Alabama and killed at least 23 people. The youngest victim was 6 years old, a sheriff said Monday.

The trail of destruction from the Sunday afternoon twister was at least half a mile wide and overwhelmed rural Lee County's coroner's office, forcing it to call in help from the state.

"The devastation is incredible," Sheriff Jay Jones said.

Drones flying overheard equipped with heat-seeking devices had scanned the area for survivors, but the dangerous conditions halted the search late Sunday, Jones said. Rescuers planned to resume the search at daylight Monday. 

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones told "CBS This Morning" the search and rescue operation was the top priority:

Sen. Doug Jones on Alabama tornadoes: Search and rescue most important right now

The Sunday tornado was part of a powerful storm system that also slashed its way across parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. 

Jones described the damage as "catastrophic" based on the destruction of homes in the area, CBS Columbus, Georgia, affiliate WRBL-TV reported. Jones confirmed children were among the dead and said some people were still thought to be missing.

Jones told reporters Monday morning the youngest victim was 6 years old. He said more children were among the victims, but he didn't know how many.

Dozens were injured, according to officials of area hospitals. Jones said some of the injuries were "very serious."

A state of emergency was in effect statewide.

Jones said the twister traveled straight down a county road in the rural community of Beauregard. He said some homes were reduced to slabs. 

Jones told WRBL he couldn't recall "at least in the last 50 years ... a situation where we have had this loss of life that we experienced today":

Multiple homes were destroyed or damaged in Beauregard, about 60 miles east of Montgomery, Rita Smith, a spokesperson for the 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.

Scott Fillmer, of nearby Auburn, Alabama, tweeted video that gives an idea of the destruction the twister left behind:

Mayor Fred "Bubba" Copeland, of Smiths Station, a small city in Lee County, told CBS News some 20 homes were destroyed there and many people had to be rescued. He helped pull two trapped elderly women from a home.

A sign from the Lee County Flea Market was found 20 miles away, in Hamilton, Georgia.

The National Weather Service said there were indications the tornado that struck Lee County was at least an EF-3, which means it had winds estimated at 158-to-206 mph. A more complete analysis was planned for daylight Monday. The twister was estimated to be at least half a mile wide.

The Birmingham NWS office posted striking radar images at about 9 p.m. local time:

"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.

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This image shows the destruction in Lee County on Sunday, March 3, 2019. Elizabeth White/WRBL-TV

No deaths had been reported Sunday evening from storm-damaged Alabama counties other than Lee, said Gregory Robinson, spokesman for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. But he said crews were 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."

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.

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This image shows a downed cellphone tower in Smiths Station, Alabama, on Sunday, March 3, 2019. WRBL-TV

Authorities said a tornado was confirmed by radar in the Florida Panhandle late Sunday afternoon. A portion of Interstate 10 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.