ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — Rescuers raced Saturday to search for survivors and help hundreds of people left homeless after a powerful tornado cut a devastating path through Mississippi, killing at least 25 people, injuring dozens, and flattening entire blocks as it carved a path of destruction for more than an hour. One person was killed in Alabama.
The tornado devastated a swath of the Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars on their sides and toppling the town’s water tower. Residents hunkered down in bath tubs and hallways during Friday night’s storm and later broke into a John Deere store that they converted into a triage center for the wounded.
“There’s nothing left,” said Wonder Bolden, holding her granddaughter, Journey, while standing outside the remnants of her mother’s now-leveled mobile home in Rolling Fork. “There’s just the breeze that’s running, going through — just nothing.”
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 Mississippi Emergency Management Agency announced late Saturday afternoon in a tweet that the death toll had risen to 25 and that dozens of people were injured. Four people previously reported missing had been found.
Throughout Saturday, survivors walked around dazed and in shock as they broke through debris and fallen trees with chain saws, searching for survivors. Power lines were pinned under decades-old oaks, their roots torn from the ground.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a State of Emergency and vowed to help rebuild as he headed to view the damage in an area speckled with wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. President Joe Biden also promised federal help, describing the damage as “heartbreaking.”
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 hospital.
It didn’t help that the community hospital on the west side of town was damaged, forcing patients to be transferred. The tornado also mangled a cotton warehouse and ripped the steeple off a Baptist church.
Sheddrick Bell, his partner and two daughters crouched in a closet of their Rolling Fork home for 15 minutes as the tornado barreled through. Windows broke as his daughters cried and his partner prayed.
“I was just thinking, ‘If I can still open my eyes and move around, I’m good,’” he said.
Rodney Porter, who lives about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Rolling Fork and belongs to a local fire department, said he didn’t know how anyone survived as he delivered water and fuel to families there.
“It’s like a bomb went off,” he said, describing houses stacked on top of houses. Crews even cut gas lines to the town to keep residents and first responders safe.
The warning the National Weather Service issued as the storm hit didn’t mince words: “To protect your life, TAKE COVER NOW!”
Preliminary information based on estimates from storm reports a,nd radar data indicate that the tornado was on the ground for more than an hour and traversed at least 170 miles (274 kilometers), said Lance Perrilloux, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Jackson, Mississippi, office.
“That’s rare — very, very rare,” he said, attributing the long path to widespread atmospheric instability. “All the ingredients were there.”
Perrilloux said preliminary findings are that the tornado began its path of destruction just southwest of Rolling Fork before continuing northeast toward the rural communities of Midnight and Silver City, then moving toward Tchula, Black Hawk and Winona.
The supercell that produced the deadly twister also appeared to produce tornadoes that caused damage in northwest and north-central Alabama, said Brian Squitieri, a severe storms forecaster with the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
In northern Alabama’s Morgan County, a 67-year-old man who became trapped beneath a trailer that flipped over during severe overnight storms was rescued by first responders, but he died later at a hospital, AL.com reported.
Even as survey teams work to assess how many tornadoes struck and their severity, the Storm Prediction Center warned of the potential for hail, wind and possibly a few tornadoes Sunday in parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Cornel Knight waited at a relative’s home in Rolling Fork for the tornado to strike with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. Despite the darkness, its path was visible.
“You could see the direction from every transformer that blew,” he said. Just a cornfield away from where he was, the twister struck another relative’s home, collapsing a wall and trapping several people.
Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County where Silver City is located, likened the damage to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It is almost complete devastation,” he said 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.”
In the town, the roof had torn off Noel Crook’s home.
“Yesterday was yesterday and that’s gone – there’s nothing I can do about it,” Crook said. “Tomorrow is not here yet. You don’t have any control over it, so here I am today.”
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.”
Now that town is boiling its water, and a curfew is in effect. Three shelters in the state are feeding the throngs of displaced people.
“It’s a priceless feeling to see the gratitude on people’s faces to know they’re getting a hot meal,” said William Trueblood, of the Salvation Army, as he headed to the area, picking up supplies along the way.
Despite the damage, there were signs of improvement. Power outages, which at one point were affecting more than 75,000 customers in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, had been cut by a third by midafternoon Saturday, according to poweroutage.us.
Meteorologists saw a big tornado risk coming for the general region as much as a week in advance, said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley.
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; Rick Callahan in Indianapolis; Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas; 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.