Tornadoes rip through Mississippi: At least 23 dead; Biden calls devastation ‘heartbreaking’

Written by on March 25, 2023

Tornadoes left a trail of destruction across rural Mississippi overnight Friday, killing at least 23 people, razing buildings and plunging thousands of homes into darkness.

On Saturday, President Joe Biden called the devastation “heartbreaking” as search and rescue efforts continued and survivor accounts emerged, including restaurant employees who huddled in a refrigerator to survive in Mississippi town Rolling Fork.

In addition to the dead, dozens of people were injured and four were missing in the wake of a spate of tornadoes, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency confirmed Saturday morning. Crews also began damage assessments Saturday, the agency said. The death toll may climb.

Much of the worst impacts spawned from a storm that carved a devastating path northeastward across Mississippi and Alabama, according to AccuWeather. The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork, about 60 miles northeast of Jackson, Mississippi, bore the brunt of damage from a tornado.

“It is almost complete devastation,” said Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County, where Silver City is located. “This little old town…is more or less wiped off the map.”

WHAT WE KNOW:Mississippi tornadoes cause death, destruction

Witnesses describe devastation in Mississippi town Rolling Fork

Victoria Garland of Onward was in Rolling Fork with her husband early Saturday, trying to help residents grappling with the damage. She called it “total devastation.”

“A lot we could see was gone,” she said. “The skyline you grew up with your whole life is gone. The businesses we rely on are gone. We’re definitely in shock.”

Garland said a Rolling Fork animal shelter was destroyed, but three dogs miraculously survived.

“I don’t know how,” she said. “To find a live dog was unbelievable. It’s just unreal.”

At Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, owners and employees survived the storm by huddling inside the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator as winds berated the metal structure, Tracy Harden, 48, told USA TODAY. Harden, 48, answered a call to a phone number listed online for the diner Saturday.

READ MORE:Diner workers survived Mississippi tornado by sheltering in refrigerator, owner says

Harden and her husband bought the decades-old diner 16 years ago, and it was a hub for the Rolling Fork community, she said. By Saturday morning, the beloved gathering spot had been completely destroyed and the only things left standing were the refrigerator and a bathroom, where one more person hid to survive the tornado.

“I care so much for my town, and our business is the place to go, not just to eat, but to be loved on and be comforted during anything,” she said.

Rolling Fork mayor Eldridge Walker told WLBT-TV he was unable to get out of his damaged home soon after the tornado hit because power lines were down. He told CNN his town had largely been wiped out.

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

Biden calls Mississippi tornado devastation ‘heartbreaking’

President Joe Biden said he has reached out to Gov. Tate Reeves and spoken with FEMA and local authorities to offer federal support in recovery efforts.

“The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking,” he said in a statement. “While we are still assessing the full extent of the damage, we know that many of our fellow Americans are not only grieving for family and friends, they’ve lost their homes and businesses.”

Search and rescue efforts underway Saturday

Significant amounts of debris are blocking roads, the Mississippi Department of Transportation said. Patients from Rolling Fork’s Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital were transferred to other hospitals after the building was damaged by the storm, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency Saturday in all counties affected by the storms. He said in Twitter posts on Friday and Saturday that search and rescue efforts were continuing and authorities were surging more ambulances and other emergency assets to the area. He also said he had finished a briefing with disaster response teams and was headed to Sharkey County.

“The loss will be felt in these towns forever,” he said. “Please pray for God’s hand to be over all who lost family and friends.”

With a population of about 3,600, Sharkey County is a predominantly Black county with a high poverty rate. About 71% of the county’s population is Black and 27% is white, according to 2021 Census data. About 35% of the county’s households are in poverty, while the county has a median household income of just under $39,000. The nationwide median household income was $70,784 in 2021.

What was once Blue Front Apartments in Rolling Fork., Miss., lies dessimated Saturday, March 25, 2023, after a tornado ripped though the Delta town Friday night.

Tornado reports in Mississippi, Alabama 

There were at least two dozen tornado reports Friday across Mississippi and Alabama, including in Mississippi’s Rolling Fork, Silver City and Winona, according to the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

In Alabama’s Morgan County, first responders are going door-to-door to check on residents. Crews rescued a man who was stuck in the mud when a trailer was overturned and six people trapped in a home, according to the county sheriff’s office.

Central Mississippi is expected to get more rain on Sunday, with thunderstorms possible in the afternoon, according to AccuWeather. Severe thunderstorms may continue with possible large hail, damaging gusts and more tornadoes from far east Texas and central Louisiana into southern and central Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia on Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

The same storm that tore through the South on Friday is heading northeastward to the Great Lakes region Saturday, bringing gusts ranging from 40 to 60 mph, drenching rainfall and possible flooding, AccuWeather forecast.

Deadliest tornado to hit Mississippi in over 10 years

Friday’s storm was the deadliest tornado to hit Mississippi since at least 2011, and potentially the deadliest in more than 50 years.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has also been hit by a number of deadly and costly hurricanes over the years, from the storm of 1947 to Hurricane Katrina.

The National Weather Service sent crews to survey the tornado, but preliminary information based on estimates from storm reports and radar data indicate that it was on the ground for more than an hour, said Lance Perrilloux, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Jackson, Mississippi, office.

“That’s rare — very, very rare,” he said, attributing the wide path to widespread atmospheric instability. “All the ingredients were there.”

Nighttime tornadoes are deadly

Nighttime tornadoes are twice as likely to be deadly as daytime tornadoes, scientists report. A 2008 study published by Northern Illinois University professors Walker Ashley and Andrew Krmenec found that nighttime tornadoes made up only 27% of all tornadoes from 1950 to 2005, but were responsible for 39% of all tornado deaths.

In fact, one in 32 nighttime tornadoes results in a death compared with one in 64 in the daytime.

Some reasons for this are obvious, according to meteorologist Jon Erdman.  

Unless lit by at least somewhat frequent lightning, you may not see a tornado at night, Erdman said. “One challenge the meteorological and social science communities face is getting the public to take shelter immediately, without first ‘confirming the threat’ of a tornado by looking outside and wasting precious seconds to reach shelter.”

He added that most people are at home and asleep at night and can be unaware of an approaching tornado threat: If you can’t see a tornado coming, it is more likely to kill you, and even more so if you have already gone to bed.

— Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press; Wicker Perlis, Mississippi Clarion Ledger; The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; Claire Thornton, USA TODAY

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