ROLLING FORK, Mississippi — Powerful tornadoes swept through parts of the Deep South Friday night, killing at least 23 people in Mississippi, destroying dozens of buildings and leaving a particularly devastating mark on a rural town whose mayor declared, “My town is gone.”
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a Twitter post that search and rescue teams from local and state agencies have been deployed to assist victims affected by the tornadoes. The agency confirmed early Saturday that 23 people have died, four are missing and dozens injured.
A few minutes later, the agency warned that the death toll could be higher, tweeting, “Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to change.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Saturday that he was on his way to Sharkey County, whose county seat was leveled by Rolling Folk. “Devastating damage – as everyone knows. This is a tragedy.”
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 70 miles per hour without weakening, speeding through towns including Winona and Amory toward Alabama into the night.
Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN that his town was essentially wiped out. Video, captured at dawn, showed houses reduced to rubble, cars thrown onto their sides and trees stripped of their branches. Occasionally, amidst the rubble, a seemingly undamaged home was spared.
“My city is gone. But we are resilient and we will come back strong,” he said.
The National Weather Service issued a warning Friday night as the storm hit that spoke out loud: “To protect your life, GET DOWN NOW!”
“You are in a life-threatening situation,” it warned. “Flying debris can be deadly for those caught unprotected. Mobile homes will be destroyed. Considerable damage to homes, businesses and vehicles is likely and complete destruction is possible.”
Cornel Knight told The Associated Press that he, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter were staying with a relative in Rolling Fork when the tornado struck. He said the sky was dark but “you could see the direction of every transformer that blew.”
He said it was “eerily quiet” when that happened. Knight said he watched from a doorway until the tornado, he estimated, was less than a mile away. He then told everyone in the house to hide in a hallway. He said the tornado hit another relative’s home across a wide cornfield from where he was. A wall in this house collapsed, trapping several people. Speaking to AP by phone, Knight said he could see lights from rescue vehicles in the partially collapsed home.
The tornado looked so strong on radar as it approached the town of Amory, about 25 miles southeast of Tupelo, that a Mississippi weather forecaster paused to say a prayer after new radar information arrived.
“Oh man,” said WTVA’s Matt Laubhan on the live broadcast. “Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen.”
Damage in Rolling Fork was so widespread that several storm chasers — who track severe weather and often livestream dramatic funnel clouds — asked for search and rescue assistance. Others broke off the chase to take the injured to the hospital themselves.
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 debris, according to the Vicksburg News. According to the newspaper, some law enforcement units in Sharkey went unreported.
According to poweroutage.us, 40,000 customers in Tennessee were without power; 15,000 customers left without power in Mississippi; and 20,000 were without power in Alabama.
Rolling Fork and the surrounding area has vast expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish breeding ponds. More than half a dozen shelters have been opened in the state by emergency officials.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post Friday night that search and rescue teams are active and that officials are sending more ambulances and emergency kits.
“Many on the MS Delta need your prayers and God’s protection tonight,” the post reads. “Watch the weather reports and stay alert all night, Mississippi!”
This was a supercell, the nasty kind of storm that produces the deadliest tornado and most damaging hail in the United States, said Walker Ashley, a professor of meteorology at the University of Northern Illinois University. Moreover, this was a night that is “the worst kind,” he said.
Meteorologists were already seeing a major tornado risk for the general region a week in advance, not the specific area, said Ashley, who discussed it with his colleagues as early as March 17. A remote alert for the area on March 19, he said.
Tornado experts like Ashley have warned of increased risk exposure in the area as people build more.
“You mix a particularly socioeconomically vulnerable landscape with a fast-moving, long-track nighttime tornado, and disaster is going to happen,” Ashley said in an email.
Earlier Friday, torrential rain in Missouri caused flooding that was blamed for the deaths of two people who were in a car that was swept away by the floodwaters. Another person went missing in another flash flood-hit Missouri county.