ROLLING FORK, Miss. – Severe storms rumbled across parts of the South on Sunday, two days after violent tornadoes smashed through the Mississippi Delta region — one of the country’s poorest areas — gutting rural towns and leaving more than two dozen people dead.
The Storm Prediction Center said “strong tornadoes and very large hail” were most likely to hit from central Louisiana across central and southern Mississippi and Alabama through the night.
The National Weather Service office in Jackson, Mississippi, retweeted photos of hail that apparently fell in the state Sunday, some of it nearly the size of a baseball.
Search and rescue teams worked Sunday through the rubble left by the weekend tornadoes. 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, and entire blocks were wiped out.
Rolling Fork in Sharkey County, about 60 miles northwest of Jackson, was devastated so quickly by the tornado that Mayor Eldridge Walker said the sheriff’s department barely had time alert the community of under 2,000 residents.
“And by the time they initiated the siren, the storm had hit and it tore down the siren,” Walker said.
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.
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.
Tornadoes, storms pound Georgia, let tigers out of their enclosure
Two confirmed tornadoes slammed into Georgia on Sunday morning, damaging buildings, closing roads because of downed trees and power lines, and even setting free two tigers from an animal park. Gov. Brian Kemp issued a state of emergency order.
A hospital was among several structures battered by a tornado in Milledgeville,Georgia, according to the police department, which posted a photo of a house crushed by a large tree and asked residents to avoid driving unless it was an emergency. Thousands were left without power in Baldwin County, about 25 miles northeast of Macon.
About 120 miles west of Milledgeville, another tornado touched down near Cannonville in Troup County, next to the Alabama border, leaving behind “significant damage,” the LaGrange Daily News reported. The storm also brought half-dollar size hail. About 100 buildings were damaged, at least 30 of them uninhabitable, and five people sustained minor injuries, officials said.
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.”
Resources, officials arrive as residents are told, ‘Help is on the way’
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 in Rolling Fork.
“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.
“It’s been my experience, in times like this, that there is no such thing as politics,” Reeves said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with politics. All this has to do with is helping our friends and our neighbors.”
How you can help
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, and 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.
South faces severe conditions with cluster of thunderstorms
Trailing Friday’s destructive storms and tornados, the region was under a siege of severe weather on Sunday as a cluster of intense thunderstorms moved over parts of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for central and south Mississippi into the night. The weather service also warned of potential supercell tornadoes developing in Alabama for Sunday night.
“A locally favorable corridor for supercell tornadoes may be developing over portions of south-central Alabama (near and just south of Montgomery) during the next couple hours,” the weather service said Sunday.
According to AccuWeather, hail over the size of golf balls was reported in parts of Alabama and Mississippi on Sunday amid intense thunderstorms. In addition to hail, the weather service in Jackson said parts of Mississippi saw wind gusts between 40 mph and 60 mph.
Where was the worst tornado damage?
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.
TORNADOES EXPLAINED:Is a tornado watch or warning worse? What to know about preparing for these violent storms
Tornadoes were deadliest since 2011
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.
Where is Sharkey County?
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.”
Walker also said the storm came down so quickly that the sheriff’s department barely had time to alert the community of 2,000 residents. “And by the time they initiated the siren, the storm had hit and it tore down the siren,” he said.
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
Diner workers survived by sheltering in refrigerator
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
Witnesses recall terror when twisters hit
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 more 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.
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