ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — 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 an especially devastating mark on a rural 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 were deployed to help victims impacted by the tornadoes. The agency confirmed early Saturday that 23 people had died, four were missing and dozens were injured.
A few minutes later, the agency warned the casualty toll could go higher, tweeting: “Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to change.”
Wonder Bolden was holding her granddaughter, Journey, while standing outside the remnants of her mother’s now-leveled mobile home in Rolling Fork on Saturday morning.
“There’s nothing left,” the 44-year-old hospice worker said, looking out at the car that had landed on top of a diner that used to be 60 feet (18 meters) away from her driveway. “There’s just the breeze that’s running, going through — just nothing.”
She said the family had spent the morning digging through debris, searching for coins her mother had stowed away, and her belongings of her father, who passed away around 25 years ago. They hadn’t been able to come up with much.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Saturday that he was headed to the town, describing what happened as “a tragedy.” Earlier, he asked for ”God’s protection” as ambulances rushed to the area and search and rescue teams began to sift through the wreckage.
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 National Weather Service confirmed a tornado caused damage about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Jackson, Mississippi. The rural towns of Rolling Fork and Silver City reported destruction as the tornado swept northeast at 70 mph (113 kph) without weakening, racing toward Alabama through towns, including Winona and Amory, into the night.
“It is almost complete devastation,” said Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County, where Silver City is located, after crews finished searching buildings and switched to damage assessments. “This little old town, I don’t know what the population is, it is more or less wiped off the map.”
He likened the damage to the deadly 2011 Tuscaloosa–Birmingham tornado and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The National Weather Service issued an alert Friday night as the storm was hitting that didn’t mince words: “To protect your life, TAKE COVER NOW!” The warning described the storm as “life-threatening” and said mobile homes would be destroyed.
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.
The tornado looked so powerful on radar as it neared the town of Amory, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Tupelo, that one Mississippi meteorologist paused to say a prayer after new radar information came in.
“Oh man,” WTVA’s Matt Laubhan said on the live broadcast. “Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen.”
The damage in Rolling Fork was so widespread that several storm chasers — who follow severe weather and often put up livestreams 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 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 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.
This was a supercell, the nasty type of storm that brews the deadliest tornado and most damaging hail in the United States, said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley. What’s more, this one happened at nighttime, 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.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus in Rolling Fork, Mississippi; Michael Goldberg in Silver City, Mississippi; Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri; Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington; Robert Jablon in Los Angeles; Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland; and Jackie Quinn in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.