ROLLING FORK, Miss. – The South was bracing for possible severe weather Sunday, two days after violent tornadoes smashed across the Mississippi Delta region, gutting rural towns and leaving more than two dozen people dead.
Search and rescue teams continued to dig through the rubble early Sunday. At least 25 people died in the 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.”
Dozens of people were also injured, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Rodney Porter, who lives about 20 miles south of Rolling Fork and belongs to a local fire department, said the devastation was overwhelming. “It’s like a bomb went off,” he said, describing houses stacked on top of houses.
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 in Norman, Oklahoma.
One man died in Morgan County, Alabama, the sheriff’s department there said.
DEADLY STORMS:Tornadoes rip through Mississippi
► A cold front is expected to stall across the South, and moisture from the Gulf could help fuel showers and thunderstorms into the day Sunday, some of which could be severe, according to the National Weather Service.
► 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 on Saturday.
►Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell was scheduled to visit the state on Sunday.
Intense thunderstorms were already breaking out in parts of the Southeast early Sunday, Accuweather reported. Several severe storm warnings were issued in Mississippi and Alabama, and hail over the size of 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.
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, Mississippi. 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.
“It is almost complete devastation,” said Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County. “This little old town, I don’t know what the population is, it is more or less wiped off the map.”
Steed said the devastation was akin the deadly 2011 Tuscaloosa–Birmingham tornado and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The tornadoes that slammed 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.
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.
– 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 completely destroyed, photos show.
The group of eight people huddled inside the walk-in 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 home 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 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.”
– Doyle Rice
Contributing: Christine Fernando, Claire Thornton, USA TODAY: The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; The Associated Press