Rescue workers and volunteers poured into the southern U.S. state of Mississippi on Sunday to help with the massive cleanup after a powerful tornado ravaged one of the country’s poorest regions late Friday, killing at least 26 people, including one in neighboring Alabama.
The twister flattened homes and businesses in a scene of utter devastation.
Hundreds of people were left homeless in Mississippi by the tornado, even as the same weather front unleashed furious new storms farther east in the state of Georgia and two tigers briefly escaped from their enclosures at a safari park. The National Weather Service warned of the possibility of new storms Sunday with high winds, large hail and possibly more tornadoes in several Southern states.
U.S. President Joe Biden issued a disaster declaration early Sunday for four Mississippi counties Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe and Sharkey. The towns of Rolling Fork and Silver City were especially hard hit by Friday’s twister.
The declaration frees money to help people in the recovery process and includes both grants and loans.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell headed to Mississippi Sunday to help assess the damage and oversee the federal government’s assistance effort.
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Mayor Eldridge Walker of Rolling Fork, a town where 2,000 people lived, said, "Sharkey County, Mississippi, is one of the poorest counties in the state of Mississippi, but we're still resilient. I feel confident that we're going to come back and build this community back bigger and better for our families and that's what we're hoping and that's what we're looking to do."
"Continue to pray for us," he added. "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."
The National Weather Service in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital, said that based on early data, the tornado that hit the state received a preliminary EF-4 rating, meaning it had top wind gusts of between 265 and 320 kilometers an hour (166 and 200 miles an hour). Based on storm reports and radar data, the tornado was on the ground for more than an hour and traversed at least 274 kilometers (170 miles).
"How anybody survived is unknown by me," said Rodney Porter, who lives 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of Rolling Fork. When the storm hit Friday night, he said he immediately drove there to assist. He said he arrived to find "total devastation" and 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.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency, but vowed to help rebuild as he viewed the damage in the region of wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. He spoke with Biden, who also held a call with the state's congressional delegation.
Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.