At least 23 people were killed when a tornado tore through the southern US state of Mississippi, ripping off roofs, damaging cars and destroying entire neighborhoods.
A powerful storm system, accompanied by thunderstorms and driving rain, cut a path of more than 100 miles (60 kilometers) across Mississippi late Friday, slamming several towns along the way.
The state emergency management agency said Saturday that at least four people were missing and dozens more were injured, while tens of thousands of people in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were without power.
In Rolling Fork, home to less than 2,000 people, entire rows of houses and buildings were demolished, leaving only scattered debris. Cars were overturned, fences were torn down and trees were uprooted, television footage showed.
Patricia Perkins, who works at a hardware store in the town, told AFP that “everything was basically wiped out.”
Resident Shanta Howard explained to local TV how residents had to help remove the dead from the wreckage.
“It’s worse than I thought. All the businesses on Highway 61 are gone,” Ricky Cox, whose seed supply store was destroyed, told AFP, saying two friends were killed when their houses were destroyed.
A search and rescue operation was conducted in Sharkey county, home of Rolling Fork – located about 70 miles northwest of the state capital of Jackson and neighboring counties.
Officials warned that the death toll could rise from 23.
“The loss will be felt in these cities forever,” state Governor Tate Reeves said on Twitter. “Please pray for God’s hand to overcome all those who have lost family and friends.”
President Joe Biden called the images from Mississippi “heartbreaking” and vowed to put federal resources at the state’s disposal.
“We will do everything we can to help. We will be there for a long time,” he said in a statement.
‘Always cry’ for help
Storm chaser Aaron Rigsby told AFP he arrived in Rolling Fork right after the storm, when it was raining heavily and “the lightning was still around.”
“When I got there, there were only voices screaming for help from people who were trapped,” he said, adding that residents helped free some people from damaged houses.
The National Weather Service issued a rare tornado emergency for Rolling Fork and surrounding areas at 9:00 a.m. Friday, warning people to seek shelter from life-threatening conditions and forecast golf ball-sized hail.
The tornado watch expires in the early hours of Saturday, meteorologists said. More thunderstorms are expected, but not expected to be severe.
In Alabama, one person died after being trapped when a trailer overturned in severe weather, the sheriff’s office in Morgan County said on Twitter.
The NWS warned residents that while cleanup operations continue, “dangers remain even as the storm continues to advance.”
Malary White, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said officials will assess the damage Saturday.
“Our top priority right now, especially for local first responders, is life safety and accounting for the public and making sure they’re safe,” he told CBS News affiliate WJTV.
“My city is gone,” Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN. “Devastation – when I look from left to right, that’s all I see.
“Many families are hurting. This community is in a situation we never expected.
“A broken house can be changed but it cannot change a life.”
Tornadoes, a weather phenomenon that is difficult to predict, are relatively common in the United States, especially in the central and southern parts of the country.
In January, a series of devastating twisters, all on the same day, left several dead in Alabama and Georgia.