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Recovery underway in tornado-hit Mississippi, 25 dead

The remains of crushed house and cars in Rolling Fork, Mississippi after a tornado touched down in the area. ©AFP

Rolling Fork (United States) (AFP) - Mississippi started clean-up operations on Sunday after a destructive tornado tore across the state, killing at least 25, shredding houses and largely wiping out the small town of Rolling Fork.

Under warm spring sunshine, shocked rescue workers surveyed the damage with roofs blown away, buildings flattened and cars smashed together amid piles of debris.

The weather system, mixed with thunderstorms and driving rain, left a trail of havoc across the southern state late Friday, slamming several towns.

The National Weather Service gave the tornado a rating of a four out of five on the Enhanced Fujita scale, saying that it had cut a path of up to three-quarters of a mile wide for 59 miles (95 kilometers).

The American Red Cross moved into a National Guard building in Rolling Fork hours after the storm struck the town, which is home to fewer than 2,000 people.

An area was set up as an infirmary and boxes full of cereal bars and baby diapers were shuttled in to provide food and medical support for storm victims who had "lost everything," said John Brown, a Red Cross official for Alabama and Mississippi. 

Anna Krisuta, 43, and her 16-year-old son Alvaro Llecha took shelter at the site, saying their house was "in pieces."

Twenty-five people were killed and dozens more injured, according to Mississippi's emergency management agency.

The severe weather also left a man dead in neighboring Alabama when he was trapped under an overturned trailer, the sheriff's office in Morgan County said.

Officials, including Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas gathered in the leveled town on Sunday afternoon, praising rescue efforts and pledging support "for the long haul." 

"It is heartbreaking to hear of the loss of life, to see the devastation firsthand," Mayorkas told a press conference held with Governor Tate Reeves and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) head, Deanne Criswell.

He warned that the country is seeing "extreme weather events gravity, severity and frequency and we have to build our communities to be best prepared for them."

Earlier Sunday, Criswell said on ABC the tornado zone was "still very much in life-saving, life-sustaining mode."

She praised first responders, saying some "may have lost their homes themselves," and that FEMA had sent teams, with more on their way, to "help plan for and start the recovery process."

President Joe Biden ordered federal aid to Mississippi on Sunday morning to support recovery efforts. 

The funding will provide grants for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, the White House said in a statement.

Emergency supplies

Reeves thanked Biden on Twitter "for recognizing the scale of the damage in Mississippi and quickly approving our disaster declaration -- a critical step in disaster response."

Electricity repairs were underway to restore power to the more than 6,000 customers still in the dark in Mississippi, along with nearly 10,000 in Alabama, monitor reported.

Volunteers poured in from surrounding towns, including Lauren Hoda, who traveled 70 miles from Vicksburg to help.

"When I woke up this morning, I wanted to cry for the people of this town because I don't think they had much time before (the tornado) came," she said.

She spent Saturday night in Rolling Fork bringing donations of water, food, canned goods, diapers, wipes, medicine and toothpaste from collection points.

Mississippi was girding for more turbulent weather Sunday, including damaging winds and hail, with the emergency management agency warning that "tornadoes cannot be ruled out."

After separate storms in the region, two tigers were re-captured in Georgia when a tornado damaged animal enclosures at the Wild Animal Safari, in Pine Mountain.

Tornadoes, a weather phenomenon notoriously difficult 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 twisters, all on the same day, left several people dead in Alabama and Georgia.

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