A tornado cut a swath of destruction through the US state of Alabama, killing at least 23 people, according to local officials (Handout)

Washington (AFP) – Rescuers in Alabama were set to resume search operations Monday after at least two tornadoes killed 23 people, uprooted trees and caused “catastrophic” damage to buildings and roads in the southern US state.

“The devastation is incredible,” Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told the local CBS affiliate late Sunday.

“I cannot recall at least in the last 50 years… a situation where we have had this loss of life that we experienced today.”

He said the death toll stood at 23, some of them children.

Other people have been hospitalized, some with “very serious injuries,” he had earlier told reporters.

Search operations for those still missing were halted on Sunday night due to hazardous conditions, but Jones added they would resume on Monday morning.

– Wrecked houses, downed trees –

The swath of destruction left was a quarter mile (0.4 kilometers) wide and stretched for the “several miles that it traveled on the ground,” according to Jones.

Still and video images showed trees that had been snapped in two, debris-strewn roads and wrecked houses in the wake of the storm.

More than 6,000 homes were left without power in Alabama, according to PowerOutage.US, while 16,000 suffered outages in neighboring Georgia.

Authorities warned the death toll could rise further as rescuers search through the debris in Beauregard, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of the state capital Montgomery.

Television images showed the heavy rain had relented by dusk but many roads in the worst-hit areas were left littered with debris and unpassable.

Residents in the town of Smith Station told local TV news crews of their shock at turning up to work to find their businesses destroyed, and seeing crying co-workers comforting one another.

One bar in the town appeared to have lost its roof and most of its walls, in images screened by MSNBC, while a cell tower was completely destroyed.

“My sister and niece have been under tornado watch and warnings all day in Montgomery… Prayers up for Alabama,” Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ava Duvernay tweeted.

Late Sunday, US President Donald Trump expressed his condolences to those affected.

“To the great people of Alabama and surrounding areas: Please be careful and safe,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Tornadoes and storms were truly violent and more could be coming. To the families and friends of the victims, and to the injured, God bless you all!”

– ‘Take cover’ –

The National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a tornado warning for areas including Lee County earlier on Sunday, calling on residents to: “TAKE COVER NOW! Move to a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows.”

Rita Smith, of the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, confirmed Monday morning that two separate tornadoes had touched down in the county — telling CNN the NWS would go out to determine “if there were indeed more than two.”

NWS Birmingham said on Sunday that the “first tornado to impact Lee County today was at least an EF-3 & at least 1/2 mi wide.”

The EF-3 designation — on a scale of 0 to 5 — means the tornado had winds of 136 to 165 miles (218 to 266 kilometers) per hour.

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