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Tornadoes tear through rural Mississippi and Alabama, killing 26

President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Mississippi after devastating tornadoes swept through the state and neighboring Alabama on March 24. (Video: Josh Beckemeyer, Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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ROLLING FORK, Miss. — An entire town, flattened. Injured people staggering out of what was left of their homes, impaled with debris. And no tornado siren to be heard.

That scene is what professional storm chaser Zachary Hall found driving into Rolling Fork, Miss., after a tornado roared through.

“There were people everywhere, too many to count,” Hall said. “We initially saw a group of seven or eight people with injuries.”

More than a dozen tornadoes reportedly tore through Mississippi and Alabama on Friday night, leaving at least 26 dead and a swath of devastation 100 miles wide as severe weather continues to threaten various parts of the United States.

Satellite images show destruction from tornadoes

There is utter destruction everywhere in Rolling Fork. Homes and businesses have been reduced to rubble. Mangled cars lay flipped. Massive trees were uprooted and tossed. It was all part of one of the deadliest tornado events in Mississippi’s history. Sharkey and Humphreys counties, both rural areas of the state that are predominantly Black, were the hardest hit, especially their towns of Rolling Fork and Silver City.

“The loss will be felt in these towns forever,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) wrote on Twitter. He later added “Devastating damage — as everyone knows. This is a tragedy.”

Here's why the size of the Mississippi tornado was remarkable

The tornadoes stretched from the Louisiana border of Mississippi through Alabama as part of a supercell, or rotating thunderstorm — a rare, extended path for such a storm. The deadly devastation was amplified by the twisters’ ferocity, which crushed many of the area’s mobile homes, which are more vulnerable to destruction from strong winds. And the storm’s nocturnal path took residents by surprise as they slept.

“People here are devastated,” said Leroy Smith Jr., a member of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors. “Last night they had their houses. Today they don’t.”

A tornado that tore through Rolling Fork, Miss., left dozens of people dead and destroyed homes. Aerial video revealed the scope of the devastation. (Video: Josh Beckemeyer, Ginny Cooper McCarley, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Winds gusted up to 80 mph while sheets of rain and hail the size of golf balls pounded the region. Dozens are injured, and four missing people were accounted for by Saturday afternoon, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said.

Severe storms also rolled through parts of the Southeast and Ohio Valley on Saturday, downing trees and power lines. One tornado was reported in Barber in southern Alabama, near the border with Georgia, around 9 a.m. Saturday.

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center is forecasting an elevated risk of severe thunderstorms for Sunday in a zone running from central Louisiana to southeast North Carolina, including southern Mississippi and Alabama. “Large hail to very large hail should be the main threat,” the center wrote. “Damaging winds and a few tornadoes also appear possible.”

Ricky Shivers is leading a group of coroners to identify the dead in Rolling Fork. Reached by phone in the temporary morgue facilities that went up around 2 a.m. Saturday morning, he detailed how the local hospital was forced to close as a result of the damage. Other parts of the town were “completely obliterated.”

He and his fellow coroners are waiting as the search and rescue teams comb through the area.

“It is very disturbing, for sure,” he said of the death toll.

Keivdra Walker was at home Friday night with her husband and four younger cousins in the Blue Front neighborhood of Rolling Fork. The roof fell in on her husband, and she was thrown into the hall by the force of the wind, she said.

They were trapped for about an hour while a live wire lay on top of and behind her house. They could hear other people screaming in their houses for help, she said.

The family is trying to see what they can salvage, although she said her daughter’s laptop and some clothes appear to have been stolen.

All the patients in the Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital were evacuated Friday night and early Saturday morning, said S. Jerry Keever, the hospital’s administrator and chief executive.

“I don’t know when I’m gonna sleep again,” Keever said, adding that he had been up through the night. Those patients were transferred to a temporary hospital in nearby Amory.

The Double Quick gas station in Rolling Fork had extensive exterior damage, but the eight people who sheltered inside on Friday night are mostly okay after sheltering in the cooler.

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Eric Whitaker, regional director of operations for Double Quick.

Some storm chasers believe a “wedge” tornado may be to blame for the wreckage. That type of tornado appears to be wider than it is tall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Some of the largest and most destructive tornadoes in history” have been wedge tornadoes, AccuWeather said.

The wedge tornado was likely on the ground for 90 minutes covering 80 miles as it chewed up west-central Mississippi, according to the National Weather Service.

The tornado was so powerful that WTVA meteorologist Matt Laubhan was moved to pray on air as he evaluated its force.

“Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen,” he said.

One “extremely high-caliber” tornado lifted debris to above 30,000 feet, said Samuel Emmerson, a member of the radar research group at the University of Oklahoma on Twitter.

President Biden called the images from the ground in Mississippi “heartbreaking” in a statement and said that he had spoken with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, who will travel to Mississippi on Sunday with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. He also spoke with the governor, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) to pledge his support.

Explainer: How Mississippi’s tornadoes unfolded

More than 40,000 customers throughout Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama were without power as of Saturday afternoon, reported, a site that tracks and aggregates data from utility companies. Another 200,000 Ohioans were without power after the same system caused damage, according to the site.

The National Weather Service is warning of ongoing danger from the fallout of the tornadoes, cautioning residents to stay away from power lines and be wary of damaged buildings and walking or driving through floodwaters.

“Do not enter a damaged building until local authorities say it’s safe. Leave your home if there’s shifting or unusual noises,” a fact sheet from the National Weather Service’s Jackson office read.

Officials also cautioned residents against forming their own search and rescue teams and urged them to boil water. Three shelters have opened for those displaced from their homes in Sharkey, Monroe and Humphreys counties.

Several Mississippi counties reported deaths. In Sharkey County, one of the hardest-hit towns, at least 13 people had died, Coroner Angelia Easton told news outlets. Monroe County Coroner Alan Gurley told The Washington Post that there were at least two fatalities in Wren, a community in northeast Mississippi.

There was at least one death in Silver City, in Humphreys County, Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper Jose Watson said in a video. He urged people to stay away unless they had family in the 300-person town, calling the damage “very catastrophic.”

And at least three deaths had occurred in Carroll County Coroner Mark Stiles told WTVA.

In Alabama, a 67-year-old man was killed at home in Morgan County, The Washington Post confirmed.

In Rolling Fork, Alexis and Miriam Hamilton were in their two-story house with their 13-year-old son when they heard the tornado coming. They ran to the basement where they held each other in the corner until the sounds stopped.

Some of their good family friends died in the tornado. Miriam Hamilton said she wondered, “okay God, what are you up to?”

Weber, Bella and McDaniel reported from Washington. Adam Lynch in Rolling Fork, Miss.; Kim Bellware in Chicago; Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Jason Samenow, Lauren Lumpkin and Samuel Granados in Washington; Niha Masih in Seoul; and Adela Suliman and Victoria Bisset in London contributed reporting.

Deadly tornadoes outbreak in Mississippi and Alabama

The latest: As a violent tornado neared Rolling Fork, some residents say they didn’t hear any sirens. Tornadoes are common in Mississippi — but not often this deadly — and mobile homes in Rolling Fork were most vulnerable to damage. On Friday, devastating tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama killed at least 26 people.

Why was the Mississippi tornado’s size rare? It caused at least 25 deaths in the state along a path of 59.4 miles, according to the National Weather Service. Photos of damage in Mississippi show areas reduced to piles of wreckage. Here’s why Mississippi’s tornadoes were so deadly and the dangers of storm chasing in the dark.

Are there any relief efforts? For some Rolling Fork residents, recovery from the severe Mississippi tornado damage is uncertain. Here’s how to help those impacted by the tornadoes.