At least 25 people have been killed by devastating tornadoes that tore through the southern US state of Mississippi, ripping off roofs, smashing cars and flattening entire neighborhoods as the region braces for warmer weather violent Sunday.
The powerful weather system, accompanied by thunderstorms and driving rain, carved a more than 100-mile (60-kilometer) path across the state on Friday evening, slamming several towns along the way.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has claimed 25 lives and said dozens more were injured. Four missing persons “have been found”, he added.
And in Alabama, a man died after being trapped when a trailer overturned in inclement weather, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.
In Rolling Fork, home to less than 2,000 people, an entire row of homes and buildings have been demolished, leaving only scattered debris. Cars were overturned, fences torn down and trees uprooted.
Some 4,800 customers were without power in Mississippi, and nearly 11,000 homes and businesses were left in the dark in neighboring Alabama, the poweroutage.us monitor reported.
Meanwhile, Mississippi was bracing for more turbulent weather on Sunday, including damaging winds and hail, with the state’s emergency management agency warning that “tornadoes cannot be ruled out.”
Patricia Perkins, who works in a hardware store in Rolling Fork, told AFP that “almost everything is erased”.
Resident Shanta Howard described on local television how community members had to help remove the dead from the wreckage.
“It’s a lot worse than I thought. All the businesses on Highway 61 are gone,” Ricky Cox, whose seed store was ransacked, told AFP, saying two friends died when their houses were hit.
“My town is gone,” Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN. “The devastation — when I look from left to right, that’s all I see.
“A lot of families are suffering. This community is in a situation that we did not expect.
“Houses that are demolished can be replaced but we cannot replace a life.”
Search and rescue operations were underway in Sharkey County, home to Rolling Fork – about 60 miles northwest of state capital Jackson – and neighboring counties.
Deaths also occurred in Humphreys, Carroll and Monroe counties, the emergency management agency said.
“The loss will be felt in these towns forever,” state Governor Tate Reeves said on Twitter. “Please pray for God’s hand to be with everyone who has lost family and friends.”
President Joe Biden called the Mississippi footage “heartbreaking” and promised to make federal resources available to the state.
“We will do everything we can to help. We will be here as long as it takes,” he said in a statement.
– ‘Constant cry’ for help –
Storm chaser Aaron Rigsby told AFP he arrived in Rolling Fork just after the storm had passed, in pouring rain and with “still lightning all around”.
“When I got there it was just a constant scream of voices crying out for help from trapped people,” he said, adding that he had helped locals free a few people from their homes destroyed.
The National Weather Service issued a rare tornado emergency for Rolling Fork and the surrounding area at 9 p.m. Friday, warning people to take shelter from life-threatening conditions and predicting golf ball-sized hail.
The NWS warned residents that as cleanup operations continue, “dangers remain even after the storms have passed.”
Malary White, spokesperson for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, told CBS News affiliate WJTV that “the top priority right now, especially for local first responders, is the safety of people and responsibility for people and making sure they are safe”.
Tornadoes, a notoriously difficult weather phenomenon to predict, are relatively common in the United States, especially in the central and southern parts of the country.
In January, a series of damaging tornadoes, all on the same day, claimed several lives in Alabama and Georgia.