ROLLING FORK, Miss. — Tornadoes left a trail of destruction across rural Mississippi and Alabama overnight Friday, killing at least 26 people, razing buildings and plunging thousands of homes into darkness.
President Joe Biden called the devastation Saturday "heartbreaking" as search and rescue efforts continued and survivor accounts emerged, including restaurant employees who huddled in a refrigerator to survive in the Mississippi town Rolling Fork.
In addition to the dead, dozens of people were injured and four were missing in the wake of a spate of tornadoes, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency confirmed Saturday morning. Crews also began damage assessments Saturday, the agency said. The death toll may climb.
Much of the worst impacts spawned from a storm that carved a devastating path northeastward across Mississippi and Alabama, according to AccuWeather. The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork, about 60 miles northeast of Jackson, Mississippi, bore the brunt of the damage from a tornado.
"It is almost complete devastation," said Royce Steed, emergency manager in Humphreys County, where Silver City is located. "This little old town...is more or less wiped off the map."
WHAT WE KNOW: Mississippi tornadoes cause death, destruction
Biden declares emergency as crews dig through storm wreckage
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.
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.
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.
Death toll rises in Mississippi
At least 25 people have died in four counties, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a news release Saturday. The agency said dozens more are injured.
Four people who were reported missing overnight have been accounted for as search and rescue efforts continue, according to the agency.
"Multiple state agencies and partners are working together to help in the response and recovery efforts," the agency said in a statement.
Witnesses describe devastation in Mississippi town Rolling Fork
There are nearly 20 homes on Seventh Street in Rolling Fork with around 80 residents. Every home was a complete loss.
John Brewer and his wife Joyce were sitting in their home Friday night on the street when the storm came through. Brewer, a long-haul trucker, who hauls munitions across the country for the U.S. military, parked his 27,000-pound truck next to his home.
The tornado, which destroyed Brewer's home, lifted the tractor-trailer off the ground and dropped it on his neighbor's home, killing L.A. Pierce and his wife Melissa. Emergency workers arrived on the scene as soon as possible, but the Pierces did not survive.
Victoria Garland of Onward was in Rolling Fork with her husband early Saturday, trying to help residents grappling with the damage. She called it "total devastation."
"A lot we could see was gone," she said. "The skyline you grew up with your whole life is gone. The businesses we rely on are gone. We're definitely in shock."
Garland said a Rolling Fork animal shelter was destroyed, but three dogs miraculously survived.
"I don't know how," she said. "To find a live dog was unbelievable. It's just unreal."
At Chuck's Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, owners and employees survived the storm by huddling inside the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator as winds berated the metal structure, Tracy Harden told USA TODAY. Harden, 48, answered a call to a phone number listed online for the diner Saturday.
Harden and her husband bought the decades-old diner 16 years ago, and it was a hub for the Rolling Fork community, she said. By Saturday morning, the beloved gathering spot had been completely destroyed and the only things left standing were the refrigerator and a bathroom, where one more person hid to survive the tornado.
“I care so much for my town, and our business is the place to go, not just to eat, but to be loved on and be comforted during anything,” she said.
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 told CNN his town had largely been wiped out.
"My city is gone," he said. "But we are resilient and we are going to come back strong."
Biden calls Mississippi tornado devastation 'heartbreaking'
President Joe Biden said he has reached out to Gov. Tate Reeves and spoken with FEMA and local authorities to offer federal support in recovery efforts.
"The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking," he said in a statement. "While we are still assessing the full extent of the damage, we know that many of our fellow Americans are not only grieving for family and friends, they’ve lost their homes and businesses."
Many in the MS Delta need your prayer and God’s protection tonight.
We have activated medical support—surging more ambulances and other emergency assets for those affected. Search and rescue is active.
Watch weather reports and stay cautious through the night, Mississippi!
— Governor Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) March 25, 2023
Search and rescue efforts underway Saturday
Significant amounts of debris are blocking roads, the Mississippi Department of Transportation said. Patients from Rolling Fork's Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital were transferred to other hospitals after the building was damaged by the storm, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency Saturday in all counties affected by the storms. He said in Twitter posts on Friday and Saturday that search and rescue efforts were continuing and authorities were surging more ambulances and other emergency assets to the area. He also said he had finished a briefing with disaster response teams and was headed to Sharkey County.
"The loss will be felt in these towns forever," he said. "Please pray for God’s hand to be over all who lost family and friends."
Tornado reports in Mississippi, Alabama
There were at least two dozen tornado reports Friday across Mississippi and Alabama, including in Mississippi's Rolling Fork, Silver City and Winona, according to the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.
In Alabama's Morgan County, first responders are going door-to-door to check on residents. Crews rescued a man who was stuck in the mud when a trailer was overturned and six people trapped in a home, according to the county sheriff's office. The man who was rescued from the mud later died of his injuries, officials said.
Central Mississippi is expected to get more rain Sunday, with thunderstorms possible in the afternoon, according to AccuWeather. Severe thunderstorms may continue with possible large hail, damaging gusts and more tornadoes from far east Texas and central Louisiana into southern and central Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
What to know about hard-hit Sharkey County
With a population of about 3,600, Sharkey County is a predominantly Black county with a high poverty rate. About 71% of the county's population is Black and 27% is white, according to 2021 Census data. About 35% of the county's households are in poverty, while the county has a median household income of just under $39,000. The nationwide median household income was $70,784 in 2021.
It is also a town that is no stranger to great challenges. The backbone of the economy is agriculture. In 2019, the Lower Delta suffered extreme flooding that lasted most of the year and few crops were planted. This left farmers without incomes, farmhands without jobs and little money circulating in the local economy.
Deadliest tornado to hit Mississippi in over 10 years
Friday's storm was the deadliest tornado to hit Mississippi since at least 2011, and potentially the deadliest in more than 50 years.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast has also been hit by a number of deadly and costly hurricanes over the years, from the storm of 1947 to Hurricane Katrina.
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, said Lance Perrilloux, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Jackson, Mississippi, office.
“That’s rare — very, very rare,” he said, attributing the wide path to widespread atmospheric instability. “All the ingredients were there."
Nighttime tornadoes are deadly
Nighttime tornadoes are twice as likely to be deadly as daytime tornadoes, scientists report. A 2008 study published by Northern Illinois University professors Walker Ashley and Andrew Krmenec found that nighttime tornadoes made up only 27% of all tornadoes from 1950 to 2005, but were responsible for 39% of all tornado deaths.
In fact, one in 32 nighttime tornadoes results in a death compared with one in 64 in the daytime.
Some reasons for this are obvious, according to Weather.com meteorologist Jon Erdman.
Unless lit by at least somewhat frequent lightning, you may not see a tornado at night, Erdman said. "One challenge the meteorological and social science communities face is getting the public to take shelter immediately, without first 'confirming the threat' of a tornado by looking outside and wasting precious seconds to reach shelter."
He added that most people are at home and asleep at night and can be unaware of an approaching tornado threat: If you can’t see a tornado coming, it is more likely to kill you, and even more so if you have already gone to bed.
— Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
Contributing: The Associated Press; Wicker Perlis and Brian Broom, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; Clarion-Ledger staff; Claire Thornton, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mississippi tornadoes: Dozens injured or dead; Biden declares emergency