The town of Rolling Fork in Mississippi has been pummelled by powerful tornadoes, leaving at least 26 people dead, several missing and a trail of destruction.
Mississippi governor Tate Reeves on Saturday declared a state of emergency after a 70mph tornado system tore through Rolling Fork and Silver City before smashing into Winona and Amory, Alabama, late on Friday. The massive supercell storm also brought hail the size of golf balls.
At least 25 people had been confirmed dead in Mississippi on Saturday afternoon, with one storm-related fatality reported in Alabama.
Rolling Fork mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN that his “city is gone” after buildings and homes were obliterated. As daylight broke, teams of rescuers were on the ground to help dig people out of the rubble.
President Joe Biden on Saturday offered his support and sympathy for Southerners affected by the storms. “Jill and I are praying for those who have lost loved ones in the devastating tornadoes in Mississippi and those whose loved ones are missing,” President Biden tweeted. The government has offered “full federal support”, Mr Biden added.
In Mississippi, Cornel Knight said that he, his wife and their three-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”, The Associated Press reported.
He said that it was “eerily quiet” as that happened. Mr 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 located. A wall in that home collapsed and trapped several people inside.
Rolling Fork mayor Mr Walker said 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 hospital but he did not immediately know how many people had been hurt.
The Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital in Rolling Fork was also damaged, WAPT reported.
The first death in Alabama was reported on Saturday morning after a man was killed after becoming trapped inside his mobile home.
A spokesperson for the Morgan County emergency department confirmed the death and told the outlet it was unclear whether one powerful tornado or two separate storms devastated the area.
— Stephanie Cox (@Stormwatcher771) March 25, 2023
Tens of thousands of people are without power in Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, according to utility tracker, Poweroutage.us.
Twitter user Stephanie Cox posted a video on Twitter showing overturned vehicles and blown-down trees caused by the storm.
She tweeted: “Absolutely unreal damage in Rolling Fork. What a wild night please keep all these towns in your thoughts!”
About 30 per cent of residences in Sharkey County – where hard-hit Rolling Fork is located – are mobile homes or housing other than homes or apartments, according to a 2021 survey by the federal Census Bureau, The New York Times reports; a fifth of the residents in the town, which is predominantly Black, are under the federal poverty line, it adds.
Mr Reeves was en route to the scene of devastation on Saturday as authorities implored citizens not to “self-deploy”.
“Volunteer Mississippi is asking private citizens not to self-deploy,” the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency tweeted. “They will work to match unaffiliated volunteers with affiliated groups on the ground when the time is right. If you would like to donate water or resources the Rolling Fork Civic Center is open to receive them.”
Deaths have been confirmed so far in Sharkey, Carroll, Monroe and Humphreys counties in Mississippi.
Dozens were injured as teams worked on Saturday to locate the missing and numbers of fatalities were expected to rise, state authorities said.
“Our neighbors in Mississippi were devastatingly impacted by last night’s storms,” tweeted Alabama governor Kay Ivey on Saturday morning.
She added that she had connected with Mr Reeves to offer her “heartfelt condolences for the lives lost and to offer our support. Alabamians stand with Mississippi!”
With additional reporting from the Associated Press