By JAY REEVES and JOSHUA REPLOGLE Associated Press
BEAUREGARD, Ala. (AP) — Volunteers helped clear debris-clogged roads and donated money to help pay for the funerals of 23 people killed by a devastating tornado in Alabama, where grieving survivors hunted amid twisted wreckage for keepsakes to help them remember the dead.
Bobby Kidd sifted through the scattered remains of the home that exploded as his grandson, 6-year-old AJ Hernandez, was taking shelter in a closet with his father and brother. The tornado’s impact sent all three flying and wrenched both boys from their father’s arms, Kidd said.
AJ didn’t survive, but memories of his brief life peeked out from the debris.
“You look and you see all this rubble, but through all this rubble you see something,” Kidd said. “You say, ‘Hey that’s mine,’ or ‘That’s my son’s toy. That was AJ’s photo album.'”
President Donald Trump was planning a Friday visit to rural Lee County, where federal disaster response teams arrived after he declared an emergency in wake of the deadly tornado outbreak Sunday. Trump’s actions won him praise from Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.
“I want to thank him in advance for coming to Alabama and for this emergency declaration,” Jones told a news conference Thursday after touring one of the hardest-hit areas of the small Beauregard community. He added: “Seeing the devastation will take your breath away.”
A powerful EF4 tornado with punishing winds of 170 mph (274 kph) has been blamed for killing 23 people in Lee County as it scoured a nearly mile-wide path that stretched roughly 70 miles (112 kilometers) from western Alabama into neighboring Georgia.
The National Weather Service says a violent storm system that crossed the Southeast on Sunday spawned at least 36 tornadoes in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. All of the tornado deaths were in Alabama, though several people in Georgia were injured.
Forecasters said more severe weather could strike Alabama and neighboring states over the weekend. Chris Darden, chief meteorologist for the weather service’s Birmingham office, said the storm system appeared to be tracking north of already suffering Lee County.
Volunteers reporting to help in Lee County were being given protective gear before fanning out to help clear storm debris from roads while survivors combed through the remains of shattered homes for any family photos, clothing and other belongings they could salvage.
Funeral services for the dead were scheduled to begin Thursday. Among the first to be buried was Marshall Lynn Grimes, 59, who perished along with his girlfriend and an 11-year-old friend of Grimes’ daughter when the tornado demolished his mobile home.
Grimes’ stepdaughter, Brooke Waldrop, said Grimes and the others had just returned home from a weekend camping trip. Grimes’ final Facebook post, about four hours before the storm hit, reassured friends: “We’re home safe before the storm.”
Donors were giving money to help the victims’ families with funeral expenses, said Bill Harris, the county coroner.
“I’m confident that all the funeral costs will be covered and will not be a burden on them,” Harris told reporters.
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said authorities had responded to only a few reports of possible looting in the area.
Roughly 100 law enforcement officers from outside the county were assisting recovery efforts, Jones said. He warned that anyone caught looting “will go to jail.”
The national Storm Prediction Center said there’s a chance of more severe weather beginning Saturday in an area from Arkansas to Tennessee — including central and northern Alabama.
“Strong tornadoes are certainly a possibility with these types of systems,” said Bill Bunting, the center’s chief of forecast operations, though he noted there’s still uncertainty about the weekend forecast.
Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta; Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama; and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; contributed to this report.