ROLLING FORK – Storm-ravaged Mississippi on Sunday struggled with the aftermath of a huge tornado that tore across the southern US state and killed at least 25 people, with devastated communities bracing for a fresh bout of extreme weather.
Shocked rescue workers surveyed the damage with homes shredded, buildings flattened and cars smashed together amid piles of debris in Rolling Fork, a small town all but wiped out by nature’s wrath.
Amid grieving and search-and-rescue operations, and after President Joe Biden declared an emergency which freed up disaster aid, Mississippians were girding for more storms Sunday which the National Weather Service (NWS) warned could bring “strong” tornadoes, damaging winds and hail the size of tennis balls.
The earlier weather system, mixed with thunderstorms and driving rain, left a trail of havoc more than 100 miles (160km) long across the state late Friday, slamming several towns. Dozens of people have been injured, and officials say the death toll could rise.
The NWS gave the tornado a rating of four out of five on the Enhanced Fujita scale, cutting a path up to three-quarters of a mile wide, with ferocious wind gusts up to 200mph.
Under warm spring sunshine and cloudless blue skies, stunned residents were seen walking among obliterated homes, sifting through debris and comforting one another as crews fought fires and cleared emergency routes.
The American Red Cross moved into a National Guard building in Rolling Fork hours after the storm razed much of 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 US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas gathered in Rolling Fork 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 increasing…in 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.”
Biden’s order to support Mississippi recovery efforts will provide grants for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, the White House said Sunday in a statement.
Reeves thanked Biden on Twitter “for recognising 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 service to the nearly 6,000 customers still without power in Mississippi, along with more than 7,000 in Alabama, monitor poweroutage.us 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, with the emergency management agency raising the threat to level 4 on a 1-5 scale and warning that “damaging winds and tornadoes, some potentially strong, are possible.”
In January, a series of damaging twisters, all on the same day, left several people dead in Alabama and Georgia. – AFP