Mississippi tornadoes killed 23 people and injured dozens more overnight

Powerful tornadoes ripped through the Deep South on Friday night, killing at least 23 people in Mississippi, destroying dozens of buildings and leaving a particularly devastating mark on a rural area whose mayor said, “My town is gone.”

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a Twitter post that search and rescue teams from local and state agencies were deployed to help victims of the tornadoes. The agency confirmed on Saturday morning that 23 people were killed, four were missing and dozens were injured.

Minutes later, the agency warned that the death toll could rise, tweeting: “Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to change.”

The National Weather Service confirmed that the tornado caused damage about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Jackson, Mississippi. The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork reported devastation as the tornado packed northeast winds of 70 mph (113 km/h) without weakening and headed toward Alabama towns including Winona and Amory overnight.

Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN his town was essentially destroyed.

“My city is gone. But we are resilient and we are going to come back strong,” he said.

The National Weather Service issued a warning Friday night as the storm raged and didn’t utter the words, “To protect your life, take cover now!”

“You are in a life-threatening situation,” she warned. “Flying debris could be fatal to those caught without shelter. Mobile homes will be destroyed. Significant damage to homes, businesses and vehicles is likely and total destruction is possible.”

Cornell Knight told The Associated Press that he, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter were at a relative’s home in Rolling Fork when the tornado struck. He said the sky was dark, but “you could see the direction from all the transformers that blew up.”

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He said it was “remarkably quiet” as it happened. Knight said he watched from the door until the tornado was, he estimated, less than a mile away. He then told everyone in the house to take cover in the hallway. He said the tornado hit another relative’s house across a wide cornfield from where he was. The wall of this house collapsed and several people fell inside. As Knight spoke to the AP by phone, he said he could see lights from emergency vehicles inside the partially collapsed home.

The tornado appeared so strong on radar as it neared the town of Amory, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Tupelo, that a Mississippi meteorologist stopped to say a prayer after the new radar report came in.

“Oh man,” WTVA’s Matthew Laubhan said live. “Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen.”

In Rolling Fork, the damage was so widespread that several storm chasers — who track severe weather and often broadcast live streams showing dramatic funnel clouds — called for search and rescue assistance. Others abandoned the chase to take the injured to hospitals themselves.

Sharkey-Isaquena Community Hospital on the west side of Rolling Fork was damaged, WAPT reported.

The Shark County Sheriff’s Office in Rolling Fork reported a gas leak and people trapped in a pile of rubble, the Vicksburg News reported. According to the newspaper, some law enforcement units are considered missing in Sharki.

According to poweroutage.us, 40,000 customers are without power in Tennessee; 15,000 customers without power in Mississippi; And in Alabama, 20,000 were without power.

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Rolling Fork and the surrounding area have cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish ponds. Emergency officials have opened more than a dozen shelters in the state.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post Friday night that search and rescue teams were active and that officials were sending more ambulances and EMS.

“Many in MS Delta need your prayers and God’s protection tonight,” the post read. “Watch the weather reports and be careful throughout the night, Mississippi!”

It was a supercell, a severe type of storm that produces the deadliest tornadoes and most damaging hail in the United States, said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley. What’s more, it was a nocturnal day, which is “the worst kind,” he said.

Meteorologists saw the risk of a large tornado coming to the region as a whole, not to a specific area, as they did a week earlier, said Ashley, who discussed it with colleagues as recently as March 17. The National Weather Service’s Hurricane Prediction Center said. He said that a large-scale alert was declared on March 19.

Tornado experts like Ashley have warned of increased risk in the region as people build more.

“You mix a particularly socioeconomically disadvantaged landscape with a fast-moving, long-night tornado and disaster is bound to happen,” Ashley said in an email.

Earlier Friday, torrential rainfall in Missouri caused flash flooding that killed two people who were in a car that was swept away by the water. Another person is missing in another Missouri county affected by flooding.

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