A tornado and severe storms have caused devastation in the US state of Mississippi, leaving at least 23 people dead and dozens injured. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) has reported that search and rescue teams are still combing through the destruction looking for survivors, with four people still missing. The storm hit Silver City in Western Mississippi, with search and rescue operations also underway in Sharkey and Humphreys counties, around 70 miles north of the state capital, Jackson. Governor Tate Reeves has activated medical support and urged residents to stay cautious and watch weather reports.
The tornado swept northeast at 70 mph without weakening, causing destruction in rural towns including Silver City and Rolling Fork, which was essentially wiped out. Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN that his city was gone, but that the town was resilient and would come back strong. The Mississippi Delta region is home to a significant proportion of mobile homes and people living below the poverty line, leading to enormous devastation. Many people were asleep when the storm hit, meaning they did not hear warnings and were unable to take shelter.
The National Weather Service issued an alert on Friday night as the storm hit, warning that flying debris could be deadly to those caught without shelter, and that mobile homes would be destroyed. TV footage showed homes levelled and debris strewn across roads as emergency services attempted to reach those who needed help. The Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital on the west side of Rolling Fork was damaged, while the Sharkey County Sheriff’s Office reported gas leaks and people trapped in piles of rubble. According to poweroutage.us, 40,000 customers were without power in Tennessee; 15,000 customers were left without power in Mississippi; and 20,000 were without power in Alabama.
Rolling Fork and the surrounding area has wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. More than a half-dozen shelters were opened in the state by emergency officials. The storm was a supercell, the type of storm that brews the deadliest tornado and most damaging hail in the United States. It was also a nighttime storm, which is considered the worst kind. Meteorologists had seen a big tornado risk coming for the general region, not the specific area, as much as a week in advance. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center put out a long-range alert for the area on March 19.
Tornado warnings had been issued in various counties throughout the state on Friday, but by 2:48am on Saturday, the National Weather Service for Jackson said the “tornado watch has expired across our forecast area”. “Additional showers and thunderstorms are expected across our area,” it said on Twitter, adding that they were “not expected to become severe”. In January, at least seven people were killed in Alabama and Georgia after a massive storm system whipping up severe winds and spawning tornadoes hit some southern states in the United States. Last month, a series of tornadoes lashed the central US, leaving a trail of wreckage and injuries as winter storms caused extreme weather around the country.