ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — A powerful tornado cut a devastating path of at least 170 miles (274 kilometers) through Mississippi Friday night, killing nearly two dozen people and obliterating dozens of buildings, as it stayed on the ground for more than an hour.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency warned in a tweet Saturday that the casualty toll could go higher than the 23 dead and four missing it had identified, saying: “Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to change.” Meanwhile other parts of the Deep South were digging out from damage from other suspected twisters.
“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.”
Throughout Saturday morning, she and others 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. President Joe Biden also promised federal help, describing the damage as “heartbreaking.”
Video shot as daylight broke in the town of Rolling Fork 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.
Sheddrick Bell, his partner and two daughters crouched in a closet of their Rolling Fork home for 15 minutes as the tornado barreled through. The family listened as the tornado winds tore through, bursting windows and toppling trees. His daughters wouldn’t stop crying. He could hear his partner praying out loud beside him.
“I was just thinking, ‘If I can still open my eyes and move around, I’m good,’” he said.
The National Weather Service sent crews to survey the tornado, but preliminary information based on estimates from storm reports and radar data indicate that it 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 before 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 Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. He said survey teams were working to assess how many tornadoes struck in Mississippi and Alabama.
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!”
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.”
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.
Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County, where Silver City is located, likened the damage to the deadly 2011 Tuscaloosa–Birmingham tornado and 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, where he lives there with his wife.
“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, a curfew in effect.
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, with its patients transferred to other hospitals and nursing facilities, state emergency management officials said in an email.
And gas lines were cut in Rolling Fork for the safety of residents and first responders, the email said.
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.
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.
He said he was discussing it with his colleagues as early as March 17, and the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center put out a long-range alert for the area two days later.
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.