President Joe Biden early Sunday issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi, making federal funding available to Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe and Sharkey counties, the areas hardest hit Friday night by a deadly tornado that ripped through the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of the U.S.
At least 25 people were killed and dozens of others were injured in Mississippi as the massive storm ripped through several towns on its hour-long path. One man was killed after his trailer home flipped several times in Alabama.
Search and recovery crews on Sunday resumed the daunting task of digging through the debris of flattened and battered homes, commercial buildings and municipal offices after hundreds of people were displaced.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell was scheduled to visit the state on Sunday to evaluate the destruction.
FEMA Coordinating Officer John Boyle has been appointed to oversee federal recovery operations. Following Biden's declaration, federal funding can be used for recovery efforts including temporary housing, home repairs, loans covering uninsured property losses and other individual and business programs, the White House said in a statement.
The twister flattened entire blocks, obliterated houses, ripped a steeple off a church and toppled a municipal water tower. Even with recovery just starting, the National Weather Service warned of a risk of more severe weather Sunday — including high winds, large hail and possible tornadoes — in eastern Louisiana, south-central Mississippi and south-central Alabama.
Based on early data, the tornado received a preliminary EF-4 rating, the National Weather Service office in Jackson said late Saturday in a tweet. An EF-4 tornado has top wind gusts between 166 mph and 200 mph (265 kph and 320 kph), according to the service. The Jackson office cautioned it was still gathering information on the tornado.
The Friday night tornado devastated a swath of the 2,000-person town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars on their sides and toppling the town’s water tower. Other parts of the Deep South were digging out from the damage caused by other suspected twisters. One man died in Morgan County, Alabama, the sheriff’s department there said in a tweet.
'Constant cry' for help
Storm chaser Aaron Rigsby told AFP he arrived in Rolling Fork right after the storm hit, in the pouring rain and with "lightning still all around."
"When I got there, it was just a constant cry of voices screaming for help from people that were trapped," he said, adding he helped residents to free a few people from their destroyed homes.
The National Weather Service issued a rare tornado emergency for Rolling Fork and surrounding areas at 9:00 pm Friday, warning people to seek shelter from life-threatening conditions and forecasting golf ball-sized hail.
The NWS warned residents that as clean-up operations continue, "dangers remain even after the storms move on."
Tornadoes, a weather phenomenon notoriously difficult to predict, are relatively common in the United States, especially in the central and southern parts of the country.Charlie Weissinger, tosses away the panelling from one of the desks in his father's demolished law office in Rolling Fork, Miss., Saturday, March 25, 2023. (Photo | AP)
In January, a series of damaging twisters, all on the same day, left several people dead in Alabama and Georgia.
“How anybody survived is unknown to me," said Rodney Porter, who lives 20 miles (32 kilometres) south of Rolling Fork. When the storm hit Friday night, he immediately drove there to assist in any way he could. Porter arrived to find “total devastation” and said he smelled natural gas and heard people screaming for help in the dark.
“Houses are gone, houses stacked on top of houses with vehicles on top of that,” he said.
Annette Body drove to the hard-hit town of Silver City from nearby Belozi to survey the damage. She said she was feeling “blessed” because her own home was not destroyed, but other people she knows lost everything.
“Cried last night, cried this morning,” she said, looking around at flattened homes. “They said you need to take cover, but it happened so fast that a lot of people didn’t even get a chance to take cover.”
Storm survivors walked around Saturday, many dazed and in shock, as they broke through thickly clustered debris and fallen trees with chainsaws, searching for survivors. Power lines were pinned under decades-old oaks, their roots are torn from the ground.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency and vowed to help rebuild as he viewed the damage in a region speckled with wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. He spoke with Biden, who also held a call with the state’s congressional delegation.
First Light of Rolling Fork Mississippi after a Violent #Tornado last night. #mswx @SevereStudios @MyRadarWX pic.twitter.com/NG0YcI3TQn— Jordan Hall (@JordanHallWX) March 25, 2023
More than a half-dozen shelters were opened in Mississippi to house those who have been displaced.
Preliminary information based on estimates from storm reports and radar data indicate the tornado was on the ground for more than an hour and traversed at least 170 miles (274 kilometres), said Lance Perrilloux, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Jackson, Mississippi, office.
“That’s rare — very, very rare,” he said, attributing the long path to widespread atmospheric instability.
Perrilloux said preliminary findings showed the tornado began its path of destruction just southwest of Rolling Fork before continuing northeast toward the rural communities of Midnight and Silver City and onward toward Tchula, Black Hawk and Winona.
The supercell that produced the deadly twister also appeared to produce tornadoes causing damage in the northwest and north-central Alabama, said Brian Squitieri, a severe storms forecaster with the weather service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
(With inputs from AP and AFP)