ROLLING FORK, Miss. – Severe storms rumbled across parts of the South on Sunday, two days after violent tornadoes smashed across the Mississippi Delta region – one of the country’s poorest areas – gutting rural towns and leaving more than two dozen people dead.
Search and rescue teams continued to dig through the rubble Sunday. At least 25 people died in a twister that stayed on the ground in Mississippi for more than an hour Friday night. Houses were torn from foundations, trees were stripped of branches, cars were flipped like toys, entire blocks were wiped out.
Rolling Fork, about 60 miles northwest of Jackson, suffered such damage that Mayor Eldridge Walker declared bluntly to CNN, “My city is gone.”
Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County, compared the destruction in Silver City to the impact of the deadly 2011 Tuscaloosa–Birmingham tornado and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It is almost complete devastation,” Steed said. “This little old town, I don’t know what the population is, it is more or less wiped off the map.”
One man died in Morgan County, Alabama, the sheriff’s department there said.
The supercell that spawned the deadly Mississippi twister that moved across 170 miles 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. Dozens of people were injured, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported. Hundreds have been displaced.
“A large portion of the state has the potential to see severe storms Sunday evening,” the agency tweeted. “Expect damaging wind gusts. Tornadoes cannot be ruled out. Have a plan. Know your safe place. Have multiple ways to receive alerts.”
DEADLY STORMS:Tornadoes rip through Mississippi
►Pope Francis offered a special prayer Sunday for the people of Mississippi “hit by a devastating tornado” during his weekly noon blessing in Vatican City.
►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. Biden called the damage “heartbreaking.”
►Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency and vowed to help rebuild.
►The Federal Emergency Management Agency said 2,000 homes in Mississippi were damaged or destroyed.
A confirmed tornado slammed down near Cannonville, Georgia, on the Alabama border Sunday, leaving behind “significant damage,” the LaGrange Daily News reported. The storm also brought half-dollar size hail. “Many buildings damaged, people trapped,” the Georgia Mutual Aid Group said on Facebook. The group said I-85 was closed in both directions and vehicles were damaged because of “many trees” across the interstate.
Two tigers escaped their enclosures Sunday at Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain after the park sustained extensive tornado damage, the park announced on its Facebook page. The post said the park sustained extensive tornado damage but that no employees or animals were hurt.
“THE TIGERS ARE SAFE!” the post said. “Both have now been found, tranquilized, and safely returned to a secure enclosure.”
As recovery efforts got started, state and federal leaders traveled to the Delta region to reassure residents that, in Reeves’ words, “Help is on the way.”
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell vowed their agencies’ support during an afternoon news conference.
“We know that this is going to be a long-term recovery event,” Criswell said. “We can see that one of the major issues we’re going to face is housing.”
Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency said it has arranged to get a number of immediate resources to those affected, including bottled water, tarps, portable restrooms, batteries, portable chargers and fuel for generators.
The Mississippi Department of Public Safety is accepting local donations of bottled water, canned goods and paper products for the victims of the storms. Here are just some of the other ways you can help:
•The Salvation Army’s Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi office said it was delivering supplies in mobile feeding units. The agency is accepting donations here.
•The Red Cross said more than 100 trained disaster workers are on the ground in Mississippi and more help was on the way. To donate, visit redcross.org, call 800-RED-CROSS (800-733-2767), or text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
•Save the Children’s emergency response teams were mobilizing supplies including water, food, diapers and hygiene kits for families. You can help fund the effort by donating here.
Intense thunderstorms were already breaking out in parts of the Southeast by midday Sunday, Accuweather reported. Several severe storm warnings were issued in Mississippi and Alabama, and hail larger than golf balls was reported. The same states pummeled with severe thunderstorms and tornadoes on Friday could be at risk into Sunday night, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bill Deger.
The area from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Columbia, South Carolina, could be most at risk, forecasters said, as well as Jackson, Mississippi, and Montgomery, Alabama. Damaging winds of 60-70 mph, large hail and a few tornadoes were possible, Accuweather said.
The system cut its ruinous path late Friday northeastward across Mississippi and Alabama, according to AccuWeather. The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado caused damage about 60 miles northeast of Jackson. The small towns of Rolling Fork in Sharkey County and Silver City in Humphreys County bore the brunt of the damage as the tornado swept through at 70 mph.
The tornado received a preliminary EF-4 rating, the National Weather Service office in Jackson said late Saturday. An EF-4 tornado has top wind gusts from 166 mph to 200 mph, according to the weather service.
The tornadoes that struck parts of Mississippi and the Deep South were the deadliest in the state in more than a decade, according to National Weather Service records.
In April 2011, 31 people died in Mississippi during tornadoes that pummeled several states, mostly in the southeastern U.S., weather service meteorologist Chris Outler said. Alabama was hit hardest during a “super outbreak” of hundreds of twisters that killed more than 320 people and caused an estimated $12 billion in damage.
Sharkey County, with a population of 3,600, is located in the Mississippi Delta region. 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.
While noting the county’s high level of poverty, Mayor Walker said Sunday, “We’re still resilient. I feel confident that we’re going to come back and build this community back bigger and better for our families.”
The area 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.
– Brian Broom
The owners and employees at a Rolling Fork diner survived by sheltering together in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator. The rest of the restaurant was destroyed, photos show.
The group of eight people huddled inside the cooler at Chuck’s Dairy Bar could feel powerful winds pushing the refrigerator along the ground, owner Tracy Harden told USA TODAY
“All of a sudden the lights flickered and somebody hollered, ‘Cooler!’” and everyone rushed inside while her husband fought against the wind to close the refrigerator door, Harden said. “Before the door closed, he could see the sky,” she said. “It hit that fast.”
– Claire Thornton
Cornel Knight said he was at a relative’s home in Rolling Fork with his wife and daughter, 3, when the tornado struck. “You could see the direction from every transformer that blew” despite the darkened sky, he said.
Sheddrick Bell, his partner and two daughters huddled together in a closet of their home in Rolling Fork for 15 minutes as the storm raced through, listening to howling winds that burst windows as his daughters cried and his partner prayed.
“I was just thinking, ‘If I can still open my eyes and move around, I’m good,’” he said.
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.
One in 32 nighttime tornadoes results in a death compared with 1 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.”
– Doyle Rice
Contributing: Christine Fernando, Claire Thornton, USA TODAY; The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; The Associated Press