Help began pouring into one of the poorest regions of the US after a deadly tornado tore a 270km path of destruction in Mississippi, even as furious new storms last night struck across the Deep South.
The twister flattened entire blocks, obliterated houses, ripped a steeple off a church and toppled a municipal water tower.
At least 25 people were killed and dozens of others were injured in Mississippi as the massive storm ripped through several towns late on Friday. A man was also killed in Alabama after his trailer home flipped over several times.
Search and recovery crews resumed the daunting task of digging through flattened and battered homes, commercial buildings and municipal offices after hundreds of people were displaced.
Jarrod Kunze drove to the hard-hit Mississippi town of Rolling Fork from his home in Alabama, ready to volunteer “in whatever capacity I’m needed”.
“Everything I can see is
in some state of destruction,” he said.
The storm hit so quickly that the sheriff’s department barely had time to set off warning sirens in the community of 2,000 residents, said Rolling Fork mayor Eldridge Walker.
“And by the time they initiated the siren, the storm had hit and it tore down the siren that’s located right over here,” Mr Walker said, referring to an area just a few streets from the town’s centre.
The mayor described his town as devastated.
“Sharkey County, Mississippi, is one of the poorest counties in the state of Mississippi, but we’re still resilient,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we certainly thank everybody for their prayers and for anything they will do or can do for this community.”
US president Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi early yesterday, making federal funding available to hardest-hit areas.
“Help is on the way,” Mississippi governor Tate Reeves told a news conference with local, state and federal leaders.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said: “We know that this is going to be a long-term recovery event.”
Recovery efforts in Mississippi were under way even as the National Weather Service warned of a new risk of more severe weather late yesterday – including high winds, large hail and possible tornadoes in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
A tornado touched down early yesterday in Troup County, Georgia, near the Alabama border, according to the Georgia Mutual Aid Group.
Affected areas included the county seat of LaGrange, about 110km south-west of Atlanta.
Five people suffered minor injuries in Georgia, where up to 100 buildings were damaged, with at least 30 uninhabitable, officials said.
Many roads, including Interstate Highway 85, were blocked by debris.
Two tigers briefly escaped yesterday from their enclosures at Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Georgia, after the park sustained extensive tornado damage, the park said on Facebook.
“Both [tigers] have now been found, tranquillised, and safely returned to a secure enclosure,” it said, adding that none of its employees or animals had been hurt.
Following Mr Biden’s declaration, federal funding can be used for recovery efforts in Mississippi’s Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe and Sharkey counties, including temporary housing, home repairs, loans covering uninsured property losses and other individual and business programmes.
Based on early data, the tornado received a preliminary EF-4 rating, which typically has top wind gusts between 265kmh and 320kmh.
“How anybody survived is unknown by me,” said Rodney Porter, who lives 32km south of Rolling Fork. When the storm hit, he immediately drove there to assist. He said he smelled natural gas and heard people screaming for help in the dark.
“Houses are gone, houses stacked on top of houses with vehicles on top of that,” he said.
Annette Body, who drove to the hard-hit town of Silver City from nearby Belozi, said she was feeling “blessed” that her own home was not destroyed, but that other people lost everything.
“Cried last night, cried this morning,” she said, looking at flattened homes. “They said you need to take cover, but it happened so fast a lot of people didn’t even get a chance to take cover.”