WASHINGTON: At least 23 people were killed and dozens injured as a tornado and strong thunderstorms swept across Mississippi late on Friday, the state's emergency management agency said after the twister left a trail of damage for more than 100 miles (160 km).
Four people were missing as search and rescue teams combed through the destruction looking for survivors after the storm struck Silver City in Western Mississippi, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a series of tweets.
"Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to change," it said, referring to the death toll.
Search and rescue teams were also out in Rolling Fork, a town that saw the brunt of the tornado, CNN reported.
I've never seen anything like this" Brandy Showah told CNN. This was a very great small town, and now it's gone." At least 24 reports of tornadoes were issued to the National Weather Service overnight by storm chasers and observers.
Photographs of the destruction published by news networks showed entire buildings left in rubble and cars turned over on their sides as people climbed through the debris in darkness.
"Many in the MS Delta need your prayer and God's protection tonight," Governor Tate Reeve said in a tweet.
"We have activated medical support" surging more ambulances and other emergency assets for those affected. Search and rescue is active.
'Take cover now'
"Earlier, the National Weather Service confirmed a tornado caused damage about 60 miles (96km) northeast of Jackson, Mississippi. The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork were reporting destruction as the tornado continued sweeping northeast at 70 mph (113kph) without weakening, racing towards Alabama through towns including Winona and Amory into the night.
The National Weather Service issued an alert that didn’t mince words: “To protect your life, TAKE COVER NOW!”
“You are in a life-threatening situation,” it warned. “Flying debris may be deadly to those caught without shelter. 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 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.”
Power lines down
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.
Rolling Fork mayor Eldridge Walker told WLBT-TV he was unable to get out of his damaged home soon after the tornado hit because power lines were down. He said emergency responders were trying to take injured people to hospitals. He did not immediately know how many people had been hurt.
A former mayor of Rolling Fork, Fred Miller, told the television station a tornado blew the windows out of the back of his house.
Storm chaser Reed Timmer posted on Twitter that Rolling Fork was in immediate need of emergency personnel and that he was heading with injured residents of the town to a Vicksburg hospital.
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.
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.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post Friday night that search and rescue teams were active and that officials were sending more ambulances and emergency assets to those affected.
“Many in the MS Delta need your prayer and God’s protection tonight,” the post said. “Watch weather reports and stay cautious through the night, Mississippi!”
This was a supercell, the nasty type of storms that brew the deadliest tornado and most damaging hail in the United States, said University of Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley. What’s more this a night-time wet one which is “the worst kind,” he said.
Car swept away
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.
Earlier Friday a car was swept away and two passengers drowned in southwestern Missouri during torrential rains that were part of a severe weather system. Authorities said six young adults were in the vehicle that was swept away as the car tried to cross a bridge over a flooded creek in the town of Grovespring.
Four of the six made it out of the water. The body of Devon Holt, 20, of Grovespring, was found at 3:30 a.m., and the body of Alexander Roman-Ranelli, 19, of Springfield, was recovered about six hours later, Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Thomas Young said.
The driver told authorities that the rain made it difficult to see that water from a creek had covered the bridge, Young said.