A powerful tornado tore through the Mississippi Delta on Friday night, killing at least 25 people, injuring dozens and causing widespread property damage. The weather system produced hail the size of golf balls and left entire blocks of towns virtually wiped out.
The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado caused damage about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Jackson, Mississippi. The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork were reporting destruction as the tornado continued sweeping northeast at 70 mph (113 kph) without weakening, racing towards Alabama through towns including Winona and Amory into the night.
More than 2,000 homes were damages or destroyed in the Delta areas not far from the Mississippi River. One man later died in northwest Alabama, according to news reports. More storms moved eastward into Georgia Sunday morning, damaging buildings and causing two tigers to be freed from an animal park, news outlets reported.
The Weather Service issued an alert Friday that didn’t mince words: ”To protect your life, TAKE COVER NOW!”
“You are in a life-threatening situation,” it warned. ”Flying debris may be deadly to those caught without shelter. Mobile homes will be destroyed. Considerable damage to homes, businesses, and vehicles is likely and complete destruction is possible.”
Despite the warnings, the line of tornadoes were the deadliest in Mississippi since 2011, the Weather Service reported. Some 31 people died in Mississippi in April 2011 during tornadoes that tore through several states, mostly in the southeastern U.S., weather service meteorologist Chris Outler said Saturday. Alabama was hit hardest during that so- called “super outbreak” of hundreds of twisters that killed more than 320 people and caused an estimated $12 billion in damage region-wide.
On Saturday, 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 from every transformer that blew.”
He said it was “eerily quiet” as that 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 take cover in a hallway. He said the tornado struck another relative’s home across a wide corn field from where he was. A wall in that home collapsed and trapped several people inside. As Knight spoke to AP by phone, he said he could see lights from emergency vehicles at the partially collapsed home.
Rolling Fork mayor Eldridge Walker told WLBT-TV he was unable to get out of his damaged home soon after the tornado hit because power lines were down. He said emergency responders were trying to take injured people to hospitals. He did not immediately know how many people had been hurt.
A former mayor of Rolling Fork, Fred Miller, told the television station a tornado blew the windows out of the back of his house.
Storm chaser Reed Timmer posted on Twitter that Rolling Fork was in immediate need of emergency personnel and that he was heading with injured residents of the town to a Vicksburg hospital.
The 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 unaccounted for in Sharkey, according to the the newspaper.
Rolling Fork and the surrounding area has wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. More than a half-dozen shelters were opened in the state by emergency officials.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post Friday night that search and rescue teams were active and that officials were sending more ambulances and emergency assets to those affected.
“Many in the MS Delta need your prayer and God’s protection tonight,” the post said. “Watch weather reports and stay cautious through the night, Mississippi!”
Nothing remained of William Barnes’ home in the tiny western Mississippi town of Silver City after the tornado tore it off its foundations. He stood in disbelief Saturday as he surveyed the lot where he’d lived for 20 years, twisted debris of cinder blocks and mangled wood siding scattered across where his home once stood.
“We lost everything but got out alive,” he said, holding his young granddaughter in his arms.
Throughout the town of just over 200 people, the stories were similar – utter destruction, incredible survival and tragic deaths from Friday’s twister that killed at least 23 as it surged nearly 170 miles (274 kilometers) across the Deep South.
A child’s Shrek doll lay face down in the dirt next to a pile of broken plywood and branches, feet from a busted-up refrigerator with its back torn clean off. Limbs from several fallen trees blocked an abandoned school bus. Outside the wall of what used to be a house, a bike lay strewn upside down in another pile of debris.
Residents sat in folding chairs outside the mud-splattered ruins of beloved family homes as people came by in all-terrain vehicles and golf carts packed with bottles of water to distribute. A line of cars was parked on the road from first responders and family who had driven in to help with clean up and rescue efforts.
Christine Chinn, who’s lived in Silver City her whole life, said her roof was gone and cars were upended in her yard as she took stock of the damage to her home of 20 years. She took cover with her husband and son in the hallway, covering themselves with a blanket as they desperately sought to protect themselves.
President Joe Biden early Sunday issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi, making federal funding available to four counties: Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe and Sharkey, the hardest-hit areas.
This was a supercell, the nasty type of storms that brew the deadliest tornado and most damaging hail in the United States, said University of Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley. What’s more this a night-time wet one which is “the worst kind,” he said.
Meteorologists saw a big tornado risk coming for the general region, not the specific area, as much as a week in advance, said Ashley, who was discussing it with his colleagues as early as March 17. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center put out a long-range alert for the area on March 19, he said.
Tornado experts like Ashley have been warning about increased risk exposure in the region because of people building more.
“You mix a particularly socioeconomically vulnerable landscape with a fast- moving, long-track nocturnal tornado, and, disaster will happen,” Ashley said in an email.
Earlier Friday a car was swept away and two passengers drowned in southwestern Missouri during torrential rains that were part of a severe weather system. Authorities said six young adults were in the vehicle that was swept away as the car tried to cross a bridge over a flooded creek in the town of Grovespring.
Four of the six made it out of the water. The body of Devon Holt, 20, of Grovespring, was found at 3:30 a.m., and the body of Alexander Roman-Ranelli, 19, of Springfield, was recovered about six hours later, Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Thomas Young said.
The driver told authorities that the rain made it difficult to see that water from a creek had covered the bridge, Young said.
Meanwhile, the search continued in another southwestern Missouri county for a woman who was missing after flash flooding from a small river washed a car off the road. The Logan Rogersville Fire Protection District said there was no sign of the woman. Two others who were in the car were rescued. Crews planned to use boats and have searchers walking along the riverbank.
When a woman’s SUV got swept up in rushing flood waters Friday morning near Granby, Missouri, Layton Hoyer made his way through icy-cold waters to rescue her.
Some parts of southern Missouri saw nearly 3 inches (8 centimeters) of rain Thursday night and into Friday morning as severe weather hit other areas. A suspected tornado touched down early Friday in north Texas.
Matt Elliott, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said the severe weather was expected across several states.
The Storm Prediction Center warned the greatest threat of tornadoes would come in portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Storms with damaging winds and hail were forecast from eastern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma into parts of southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois.
More than 49,000 customers had lost power in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee as of Friday night, according to poweroutage.us.
In Texas, a suspected tornado struck about 5 a.m. in the southwest corner of Wise County, damaging homes and downing trees and power lines, said Cody Powell, the county’s emergency management coordinator. Powell said no injuries were reported.
The weather service had not confirmed a tornado, but damage to homes was also reported in neighboring Parker County, said meteorologist Matt Stalley.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri, Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington, Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, and Jackie Quinn in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.
Photo: William Barnes talks about the damage to his property in Silver City, Miss. (AP Photo/Michael Goldberg)
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