Leah Ann Hubbard and her neighbors are well accustomed to “tornadic weather” in the tiny town of Amory, Mississippi - and they all watch local TV meteorologist, Matt Laubhan, to see just what they should expect.
There’s usually a rather unfazed attitude in the town towards high winds and severe weather, given its frequency.
But as Mr Laubhan gave Friday night’s forecast on local station WTVA, Amory residents knew that something was very different.
“Oh man, north side of Amory, this is coming in,” Mr Laubhan told viewers, a note of urgency rising in his voice.
As more detailed weather images emerged of the tornado’s path, he blurted out: “Dear Jesus, please help them, Amen.”
The power had already gone out at Ms Hubbard’s home when he issued that prayer. But she told The Independent via phone on Sunday that the meteorologist’s urgency and demeanor throughout the broadcast was what had sent her to take cover in the bathtub, under her mattress, with her two dogs.
“He saved lives, for sure,” Ms Hubbard, 45, told The Independent.
The tornado-spawning storm system that Mr Laubhan warned of wove a 170-mile path of destruction across parts of the south on Friday, leaving at least 26 people dead in two states.
Mr Laubhan sounded the alarm as he watched on radar the massive cell shifting towards Amory, a town of around 6,000 people, in Mississippi.
“We knew it was coming, but you didn’t know if it was going to touch down,” Ms Hubbard said. “All of a sudden, Matt says, ‘This is a potentially deadly tornado.’ I just remember him saying ‘deadly’ over and over.’”
Despite the region’s frequent severe storms, she said that “most of us have never been in a town where a tornado touched down”.
“Every week, there’s the possibility of severe thunderstorms, particularly in the spring and fall,” she added. “What made it different was, first, the touchdown in Winona and knowing the same thing was heading to us. There was hope that it would weaken ... but we knew to get ready.
“And then what was really different was when Matt said ‘deadly tornado ... Armory, take cover.’ Then, you know.’”
Ms Hubbard said his words motivated her to hunker down.
“Everybody watches him around here to find out if they need to shelter for a tornado,” she said, adding that his words “gave us almost an hour warning about ‘Hmmm, maybe we should take this seriously, maybe we should really get prepared, so I started pulling out my mattress because I’m going to get in the tub with my two dogs.”
His words of warning swiftly became a terrifying reality.
There is a monster swirling over your house and over your town, and there’s nothing you can do. And you’re just praying for yourself and for everybody else.”— Leah Ann Hubbard, resident of Amory, Mississippi
“The last thing I heard him say was, ‘Debris is 7,000 feet in the air,’ and then the lights go off, the phone service dies, and you’re in the dark with the dogs,” she said.
“So it was harrowing ... all I heard was rain beating down, and it must’ve been thunderous; it’s hard to remember, because you’re in fight or flight mode. Above all, you just feel the power.
“You know that there is a monster swirling over your house and over your town, and there’s nothing you can do. And you’re just praying for yourself and for everybody else.”
Amory suffered extensive damage while the town of Rolling Fork, more than three hours north in Mississippi, was nearly flattened. More than a dozen people were killed in Sharkey County, home to Rolling Fork, alone.
The Rolling Fork/Silver City tornado has been preliminarily classed as a huge Category 4 tornado, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) said on Saturday.
In Monroe County, where Amory is located, the coroner announced late on Saturday that a father and baby girl were among the dead.
Ethan Herndon, 34, and 23-month-old Riley Mae Herndon died at their home in Wren, eight miles from Amory.
Ms Hubbard said that when she ventured out to survey the damage in Amory on Saturday that it looked “like an apocalypse.”
“You see all these houses covered in trees, streets that have been cleared of trees, but” debris remains stacked along cleared roads, she said.
“There are not a lot of people out; they must’ve gone elsewhere where they can reassess and recover a little bit,” she continued.
“The people that you see out there, they’re exhausted. They’re working hard; it’s not frantic, it’s not panic, it’s just resignation that this happened, still a little bit of shock. They’re doing what they can.”
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves has declared a state of emergency in affected counties as President Joe Biden and FEMA promised full federal assistance. The tornadoes were the region’s deadliest in at least a decade and possibly in more than half a century.
Ms Hubbard, who volunteers at the Amory Humane Society, said that when she went to the shelter she found that it had been badly damaged.
When workers arrived in the “pitch black” following the storm, more than 60 terrified animals had escaped from damaged enclosures and had to be rounded up.
The Amory Humane Society asked other shelters to step in because the building was so severely hit. “But we count it as a miracle that not one of the animals was harmed,” Ms Hubbard said. By Sunday, almost all the animals had been safely housed elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the human residents of Amory were counting their blessings in part due to the instinctive prayers of a local meteorologist.
A repeat Emmy winner, Mr Laubhan’s social media reveals perhaps a foreshadowing of his fateful broadcast on Friday.
The three most important things in his life are listed in his bio: “God>Family>weather.”
“Without Matt and the tornado sirens, we would not have known anything bad was coming,” Ms Hubbard says. “Until it was too late.”