Powerful tornadoes that ripped through Mississippi killed at least 26 people and obliterated dozens of buildings, leaving an especially devastating mark in a rural US town whose mayor declared: “My city is gone.”
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a Twitter post that search-and-rescue teams from local and state agencies had been deployed to help victims impacted by the tornadoes.
The agency later confirmed the death toll had risen to 26 from 23. Four missing people have been found but dozens have been hurt. President Biden declared a major emergency in Mississippi and there are warnings or more bad weather ahead.
The national weather service confirmed 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 70mph (112km/h) without weakening, racing towards Alabama through towns including Winona and Amory into the night.
Rolling Fork mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN that his town was essentially wiped out. Video shot as daylight broke showed houses reduced to piles of rubble, cars flipped on their sides and trees stripped of their branches. Occasionally, in the midst of the wreckage, a home would be spared, seemingly undamaged.
“My city is gone. But we are resilient and we are going to come back strong,” he said.
The weather service issued an alert as the storm was hitting that did not 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.”
Cornel Knight said he, his wife and their three-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. Mr 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 Mr Knight spoke, he said he could see lights from emergency vehicles at the partially collapsed home.
The damage in Rolling Fork was so widespread that several storm chasers – who follow severe weather and often put up live-streams showing dramatic funnel clouds – pleaded for search and rescue help. Others abandoned the chase to drive injured people to the hospitals themselves.
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 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.
Mississippi governor Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post on Friday night that search and rescue teams were active and that officials were sending in more ambulances and emergency assets.
“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!”
Earlier on Friday, torrential rainfall in Missouri caused flooding that was blamed for the deaths of two people who were in a car that was swept away by high water. Another person was missing in another Missouri county hit by flash floods. – AP