By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, MICHAEL GOLDBERG and ROGELIO SOLIS
ROLLING FORK, Mississippi (AP) — A powerful tornado ripped a devastating path through Mississippi on Friday night, killing more than two dozen people and knocking out dozens of buildings, as it lay on the ground for more than a month. hour.
The tornado leveled entire blocks of homes in the small town of Rolling Fork in the Mississippi Delta, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars on their sides and toppling the water tower. Residents squatted in bathtubs and broke into a John Deere store which they turned into a triage center for the injured.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency tweeted late Saturday afternoon that the death toll had risen from 23 to 25. Four missing people were found but dozens were also injured.
Meanwhile, other parts of the Deep South were digging in from damage from other suspected tornadoes. A man also died in Morgan County, Alabama, the sheriff’s department said in a tweet.
“There’s nothing left,” said Wonder Bolden, holding her granddaughter, Journey, while standing in front of the remains of her mother’s now razed mobile home in Rolling Fork. “There is only the breeze passing, passing – nothing.”
Throughout Saturday, she and others wandered around dazed and in shock as they cut through debris and fallen trees with chainsaws, looking for survivors. Power lines were stuck under decades-old oak trees, their roots uprooted from the ground.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency and pledged to help with reconstruction as he walked to view the damage in an area dotted with vast swathes of cotton fields, corn and soybeans and catfish breeding ponds. President Joe Biden also pledged federal aid, calling the damage “heartbreaking.”
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 take the injured to the hospital.
But it didn’t help that the community hospital on the west side of town was damaged, forcing patients to be transferred.
Sheddrick Bell, his partner and two daughters hunkered down in a closet in their home in Rolling Fork for 15 minutes as the tornado ripped through. Her daughters couldn’t stop crying. He could hear his partner praying aloud next to him.
“I was just thinking, ‘If I can still open my eyes and move, I’m fine,'” he said.
Rodney Porter, who lives about 20 miles south of Rolling Fork and is with a local fire department, said he didn’t know how anyone survived while delivering water and fuel to the families there.
“It’s like a bomb went off,” he said, describing houses piled on top of houses. Crews even cut gas lines to the city to keep residents and first responders safe.
The warning issued by the National Weather Service as the storm hit didn’t mince words: “To protect your life, COVER YOURSELF NOW!”
Preliminary information based on storm report estimates and radar data indicates it was on the ground for more than an hour and traveled at least 170 miles (274 kilometers), said Lance Perrilloux, meteorologist at the service’s office. weather report from Jackson, Mississippi.
“It’s rare – very, very rare,” he said, attributing the long run to widespread atmospheric instability. “All the ingredients were there.”
Perrilloux said preliminary findings are that the tornado began its destructive path just southwest of Rolling Fork before continuing northeast toward the rural communities of Midnight and Silver City before moving toward Tchula, Black. Hawk and Winona.
The supercell that produced the deadly tornado also appeared to produce tornadoes that caused damage in northwest and north-central Alabama, said Brian Squitieri, severe storm forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
In Morgan County, northern Alabama, a 67-year-old man who was trapped under an overturned trailer during severe overnight storms was rescued by first responders, but died later at a hospital, AL.com reported.
Even as survey teams work to assess the number of tornadoes hit and their severity, the Storm Prediction Center warns of the potential for hail, wind and perhaps a few tornadoes Sunday in parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.
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 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.
Royce Steed, the emergency manager for Humphreys County, where Silver City is located, likened the damage to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It’s almost total devastation,” he said after teams finished searching the buildings and moved on to assessing the damage. “This little old town, I don’t know what its population is, it’s more or less wiped off the map.”
In the city, the roof had torn off the house of Noel Crook, where he lives there with his wife.
“Yesterday was yesterday and here we go – there’s nothing I can do about it,” Crook said. “Tomorrow is not here yet. You have no control over that, so here I am today.
The tornado appeared so powerful on radar as it approached the town of Amory, about 40 miles southeast of Tupelo, that a Mississippi meteorologist stopped to say a prayer after the arrival of new radar information.
“Oh man,” WTVA’s Matt Laubhan said during the live broadcast. “Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen.”
Now that this city is boiling its water, a curfew is in effect.
More than half a dozen shelters have been opened across the state to house the displaced.
“It’s a priceless feeling to see the gratitude on people’s faces to know they’re getting a hot meal,” said William Trueblood, director of disaster emergency services for the Alabama Division, of the Louisiana and Mississippi Salvation Army as he made his way to the area, picking up supplies along the way.
He said they were learning that at least 19,000 homes had been affected by the weather.
Still, there were signs of improvement. Power outages, which at one point affected more than 75,000 customers in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, had been reduced by a third by mid-afternoon Saturday, according to poweroutage.us.
Meteorologists saw a high risk of a tornado coming for the general region up to a week in advance, said Walker Ashley, professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University.
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.
Emily Wagster Pettus, writer at Associated Press, in Rolling Fork, Mississippi; Michael Goldberg in Silver City, Mississippi; Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri; Rick Callahan in Indianapolis; Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas; 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.