Tornadoes rip through Mississippi, killing at least 23

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A general view shows a damaged building, following a tornado in Silver City, Mississippi, U.S. March 24, 2023 in this picture obtained from social media. Mississippi Highway Patrol via Twitter/via REUTERS

By Brendan O’Brien and Lucia Mutikani

(Reuters) – At least 23 people were killed and dozens injured after thunderstorms spawning high straight-line winds and tornadoes ripped across Mississippi late on Friday, leaving hundreds without shelter, state officials said on Saturday.

Four people were missing following the storms, which left a trail of damage for more than 100 miles (161 km). The tornadoes struck Silver City, a town of 200 people in western Mississippi, as well as Rolling Fork, with a population of 1,700, which was hardest hit. Parts of the state remain under tornado warning.

“At least twenty three Mississippians were killed by last night’s violent tornadoes,” Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves wrote on Twitter. “We know that many more are injured. Search and rescue teams are still active. The loss will be felt in these towns forever.”

Reeves declared a state of emergency in the affected areas, which he said would remain in effect “until such time as this threat to public safety shall cease to exist.” Reeves, who visited Silver City, said a request for a major disaster declaration had been submitted, adding that “the scale of the damage and loss is evident everywhere affected today.”

President Joe Biden described the images from Mississippi as “heartbreaking,” and said in a statement that he had spoken with Reeves and offered his condolences and full federal support for the recovery.

“To those impacted by these devastating storms, and to the first responders and emergency personnel working to help their fellow Americans, we will do everything we can to help,” Biden said. “We will be there as long as it takes. We will work together to deliver the support you need to recover.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Deanne Criswell told CNN that she would be traveling to Mississippi on Sunday. Criswell pledged to process quickly the request to declare the tornado areas a major disaster to enable full federal support now and over the long term.

FEMA was already on the ground, she said, adding that the American Red Cross was setting up shelters.

Search and rescue teams combed through the destruction looking for survivors in Silver City and Rolling Fork.

“My city is gone, but we are resilient,” Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker said on CNN. “We are going to come back strong.”

Walker said several people were trapped in their homes, adding that rescue efforts were under way.

He said 12 of the people who died were in Rolling Fork. Television images showed uprooted trees, houses ripped apart and damaged motor vehicles. Many areas were without electricity.

Humphreys County Sheriff Bruce Williams told CNN that “this town has been destroyed like a bomb hit it.”

Williams said there were no missing persons reported, but three deaths had been confirmed in the county.

GRIM SITUATION

Yazoo Constable Jeremy McCoy, who had gone to Rolling Fork to assist with rescue efforts told CNN of the grim situation on the ground and stepping on nails.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said McCoy. “You hope to hear somebody call, a baby crying, a dog barking or something, but hear nothing.”

Tracy Harden, owner of Chuck’s Dairy Barn, told the network that she and her husband sought shelter in a cooler. Others hunkered down in their homes, finding refuge in bathtubs.

The organization Volunteer Mississippi, through the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, asked citizens not to self-deploy, but welcomed donations of water, canned food and other resources.

It said unaffiliated volunteers would be matched with affiliated groups on the ground when the time was right.

GoFundMe said it had launched a centralized hub housing all verified fundraisers related to the disaster.

A Rolling Fork resident, Brandy Showah, also told CNN that the town was gone. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, adding that her grandmother’s house suffered damage.

Todd Terrell, who heads a volunteer rescuers group called United Cajun Navy, told ABC News that Rolling Fork was “pretty much devastated” and many people remained trapped in their homes. Terrell compared the destruction to a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, that killed 161 people in 2011.

At least 24 reports of tornadoes were issued to the National Weather Service on Friday night and into Saturday morning by storm chasers and observers.

The reports stretched from the western edge of Mississippi north through the center of the state and into Alabama. Unconfirmed reports said one person had died in Alabama.

Photographs of the destruction published by news networks showed entire buildings left in rubble and cars turned over on their sides as people climbed through the debris in darkness.

“Many in the MS Delta need your prayer and God’s protection tonight,” the governor, Reeves, said late on Friday in a tweet. “We have activated medical support – surging more ambulances and other emergency assets for those affected.”

(Reporting by Mrinmay Dey in Bengaluru, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Writing by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Frances Kerry, Daniel Wallis and Matthew Lewis)

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