Powerful tornadoes tore through parts of the Deep South on Friday night, killing at least 23 people in Mississippi, obliterating dozens of buildings and leaving a particularly devastating mark on a rural town whose mayor said, “My town is gone.”
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a Twitter post that search and rescue teams from local and state agencies have been deployed to assist victims affected by the tornadoes. The agency confirmed early Saturday that 23 people had died, four were missing and dozens were injured.
Minutes later, the agency warned that the death toll could rise, tweeting: “Unfortunately these numbers are set to change.”
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves tweeted on Saturday that he was on his way to Sharkey County, whose Rolling Folk county seat was razed. “Devastating damage – as everyone knows. It’s a tragedy.
The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado caused damage about 60 miles northeast of Jackson, Mississippi. The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork reported destruction as the tornado swept northeast at 70 mph (113 km/h) unabated, tracking into Alabama through towns including Winona and Amory, in the night.
Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN his town was virtually wiped out. Video shot in daylight showed homes reduced to piles of rubble, cars flipped on their sides and trees stripped of their branches. Sometimes, amidst the wreckage, a house was spared, apparently intact.
“My town is gone. But we are resilient and we will come back strong,” he said.
The National Weather Service issued an alert Friday evening as the storm hit without mincing words: “To protect your life, COVER YOURSELF NOW!”
“You are in a life-threatening situation,” he warned. “Flying debris can be deadly to those caught homeless. Mobile homes will be destroyed. Extensive damage to homes, businesses and vehicles is likely and complete destruction is possible. »
Cornel Knight told The Associated Press that he, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter were at a relative’s home in Rolling Fork when the tornado struck. He said the sky was dark but “you could see the direction of each exploding transformer”.
He said it was “eerily quiet” when it happened. Knight said he watched from a doorway until the tornado was, he estimated, less than a mile away. Then he told everyone in the house to hide in a hallway. He said the tornado hit another relative’s house across a vast cornfield from where he was standing. A wall of this house collapsed and trapped several people inside. As Knight spoke to AP by phone, he said he could see emergency vehicle lights in the partially collapsed house.
The tornado appeared so powerful on radar as it approached the town of Amory, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Tupelo, that a Mississippi meteorologist stopped to say a prayer after the arrival of new radar information.
“Oh man,” WTVA Matt Laubhan said during the live stream. “Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen.”
The damage in Rolling Fork was so widespread that several storm chasers – who track the weather and often broadcast live streams showing dramatic funnel clouds – pleaded for search and rescue assistance. Others gave up the chase to drive the injured themselves to hospitals.
Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital on the west side of Rolling Fork was damaged, WAPT reported.
The Sharkey County Sheriff’s Office in Rolling Fork reported gas leaks and people trapped in piles of rubble, according to the Vicksburg News. Some law enforcement units were missing in Sharkey, according to the newspaper.
According to poweroutage.us, 40,000 customers were without power in Tennessee; 15,000 customers were left without power in Mississippi; and 20,000 were without power in Alabama.
Rolling Fork and its surroundings are filled with vast expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish breeding ponds. More than half a dozen shelters have been opened across the state by emergency officials.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post late Friday that search and rescue teams were active and officials were dispatching more ambulances and emergency resources.
“Many in MS Delta need your prayers and God’s protection tonight,” the post said. “Watch the weather reports and stay safe all night, Mississippi!”
It was a supercell, the nasty type of storm that brews the deadliest tornado and most devastating hail in the United States, said Walker Ashley, professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University. . Plus, it was a night that is “the worst kind,” he said.
Meteorologists saw a big tornado risk coming for the general region, not the specific area, up to a week in advance, said Ashley, who was discussing it with colleagues as early as March 17. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center issued a long-range warning for the region on March 19, he said.
Tornado experts like Ashley have warned of increased hazard exposure in the area due to people building more.
“You mix a particularly socio-economically vulnerable landscape with a fast, long-lasting nighttime tornado, and disaster will strike,” Ashley said in an email.
Earlier Friday, torrential rains in Missouri caused flooding that killed two people who were in a car swept away by high water. Another person was missing in another Missouri county affected by flash flooding.
Associated Press writers Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri; Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Wash.; Robert Jablon in Los Angeles; Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland; and Jackie Quinn in Washington, DC contributed to this report.