Powerful tornadoes tore through the US deep south on Friday night, killing at least 23 people in Mississippi, obliterating dozens of buildings, and leaving an especially devastating mark in a rural town whose mayor declared: “My city is gone”.
Search and rescue teams from local and state agencies were deployed to help victims of the tornadoes. By early yesterday, 24 people were reported dead, four were missing, and dozens more were injured.
Authorities warned that casualty numbers may rise.
Eldridge Walker, mayor of the town of Rolling Fork, said his town was essentially wiped out. “My city is gone,” he said. “But we are resilient and we are going to come back strong.”
The US national weather service didn’t mince words when it issued its alert on Friday night: “To protect your life, take cover now!”
The damage in Rolling Fork was so widespread that several storm chasers — people who follow severe weather and often put up livestreams showing dramatic funnel clouds — pleaded for search and rescue help.
Tornado experts have been warning about increased risk exposure in the region because of increased building.
“You mix a particularly socioeconomically vulnerable landscape with a fast-moving, long-track nocturnal tornado, and, disaster will happen,” said one meteorologist.
One man said it was “eerily quiet” as the tornado hit. He 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 cornfield from where he was. A wall in that home collapsed and trapped several people inside. As he spoke to reporters by phone, he said he could see lights from emergency vehicles at the partially collapsed home.
The tornado looked so powerful on radar as it neared the town of Amory, about 25 miles southeast of Tupelo, that one Mississippi meteorologist paused to say a prayer after new radar information came in.