Deadly Alabama tornado rated EF-4 with 170-mph winds

Tornado damage just south of Beauregard, Alabama on Sunday, March 3, 2019. (Photo: National Weather Service – Birmingham)

The people of Beauregard, Alabama will never be the same after a deadly tornado tore through their community last Sunday, March 3. Despite ample lead time – warnings from sirens, weather radio, social media and local television – it wasn’t enough to save everyone in the storm’s path. It was too big and too strong. The tornado took 23 souls, including four young children.

Three of those children – 6-year-old AJ Hernandez, 8-year-old Mykala Waldon and 10-year-old Taylor Thornton – were students at Beauregard Elementary School. Teachers told The Washington Post on Tuesday that Waldon was “expressive” and had “infectious energy.” They said Hernandez had a sunny disposition, and that Thornton was an “angel child” who said everything “with a giggle and joy.”

The devastation is hard to take. “Everyone here is family,” said third-grade teacher Kristin Cofield.

Another young child, 9-year-old Jonathan Bowen, was also killed by the tornado. He did not attend Beauregard Elementary.

The names of the 23 victims were released on Tuesday, and included seven members of an extended family, a couple in their 60s and their adult son, fathers and grandmothers, colleagues and customers, and childhood friends.

Beauregard is in central Lee County, about nine miles southeast of Auburn. According to the preliminary report from the National Weather Service (NWS), the tornado started to the west near Society Hill in Macon County, and continued to the northeast into Lee County, where it dissipated just east of Smiths Station. It was rated as an EF-4 tornado with winds of 170 mph. At its biggest, the tornado was almost a mile wide, and it stayed on the ground for a staggering 56 miles. The average path length for tornadoes in the U.S. since 1950 is 3.5 miles. Not only did the Lee County tornado kill 23 people, but it injured 90 others.

 Tornado damage just south of Beauregard, Alabama on Sunday, March 3, 2019.  (Photo: National Weather Service - Birmingham)
Tornado damage just south of Beauregard, Alabama on Sunday, March 3, 2019. (Photo: National Weather Service – Birmingham)

A separate EF-2 tornado, with winds of 115 mph, tracked through Macon and Lee counties just south of the EF-4 storm, injuring one person. After surveying damage in other areas, the NWS determined that four other twisters touched down in Alabama that day – two rated EF-0 in Autauga and Bullock counties, and two EF2s in Barbour County.

NWS records show there were 46 tornadoes in Alabama in 2018, and 17 of them occurred in March, more than any other month that year. From 1950 through 2018, 34 tornadoes in Alabama were rated EF-4 strength, causing 40 percent of tornado fatalities statewide. The last tornado deaths in Alabama occurred in 2016 when four people were killed in DeKalb and Jackson counties.

Various officials spent Monday identifying those who died in Sunday’s tornado, and notifying the victims’ families. As the number of fatalities increased, Lee County Coroner Bill Harris said he realized his “resources would be overwhelmed.”

Harris activated a statewide network of coroners who voluntarily came to Lee County to help speed up the process. By 10:00 p.m. Monday night, all the victims’ bodies had been released to their families so they could begin funeral preparations.

“Just keep those families in your prayers,” Harris said. “I can’t thank this community enough for jumping in there.”

More information on tornado safety is available here. The best way to be prepared is to receive weather alerts from as many sources as possible – Weather radio, mobile devices and local television stations.

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Nick Austin, Director of Weather Analytics and Senior Meteorologist

In his 17 years of weather forecasting experience, Nick worked on air at WBBJ-TV and WRCB-TV, including time spent doing weather analysis and field reporting. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from Georgia Institute of Technology. Nick is also a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” for eight consecutive years. Nick earned his National Weather Association Broadcasting Seal in 2005.

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