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Mississippi governor declares state of emergency after tornadoes kill at least 26 people in two states

At least 13 people were killed in the small town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi.

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At least 26 people were killed when tornadoes swept through Mississippi and Alabama Friday night, officials said.

What we know so far

  • At least 12 tornadoes have hit Mississippi and Alabama since Friday night, the National Weather Service said.
  • Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency in affected areas and tweeted that the state had activated medical support.
  • A man and his daughter were killed in Wren, Mississippi, Monroe County Coroner Alan Gurley told NBC News.
  • Sharkey County Coroner Angelia Eason said there were at least 13 deaths in the small town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi.

Twenty-five of the 26 who died were in Mississippi, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. In announcing the higher death toll Saturday afternoon, MEMA said four people who were missing had been accounted for. Dozens more people were injured.

Tornado in Rolling Fork gets preliminary EF-4 rating

Mississippi governor to hold press conference Sunday with Homeland Security, FEMA chiefs

Gov. Tate Reeves plans to hold a news conference Sunday to update Mississippi residents on the latest impacts of Friday night's tornadoes, his office said in a statement.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, and members of the state congressional delegation were expected to join Reeves, according to the statement.

The press conference at noon CDT was slated to happen at the site of a community nonprofit in the hard-hit town of Rolling Fork.

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith expresses faith in Biden's response

Speaking to reporters on the ground Saturday in Mississippi after touring leveled communities, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Mississippi, said she had faith in the storm response of President Joe Biden.

The state's junior senator said she had spoken to Biden on the phone earlier in the day.

"The president assured me he would expedite anything to help those in Mississippi," Hyde-Smith said. "So we're grateful."

Gov. Tate Reeves and the state's congressional delegation on Saturday formally asked the president for expedited federal emergency relief for those hardest hit by the tornadoes.

Hyde-Smith vowed to "get what we need" when she returned to Washington. She noted that Federal Emergency Management Administrator Deanne Criswell was in touch and planned to be on the ground in Mississippi on Sunday.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas and the state's congressional delegation, including Hyde-Smith, were expected to join Criswell for a tour of devastated areas of Mississippi, according to a Homeland Security statement.

The senator said she spoke to an area woman Saturday who lost her mother and father in-law to the storm. The couple, Hyde-Smith said, was found beneath a tractor-trailer.

"In the blink of an eye," she said. "25 people have lost their lives. The need is great here."


In devastated Rolling Fork, concern also centers on blues heritage

The town of Rolling Fork appeared to be one of the hardest-hit locations in Mississippi following a devastating tornado swarm Friday.

While search and rescue crews continued to look for survivors, some in the region expressed concern for monuments to roles it has played in American culture and history.

"The damage is extensive and devastating," emailed Meg Cooper, a coordinator with Lower Delta Partnership, a nonprofit cultural programming and business group in the region. "This tornado cut a wide path destroying homes and most of our businesses."

She said damage to cultural monuments, including a site marking the birthplace of blues musician Muddy Waters, was not yet clear. 

Waters was a second-generation Mississippi Delta blues musician who helped move the genre to Chicago and electrify it by using an electric guitar and portable amplifier.

The town of more than 2,000 is home to the Waters birthplace plaque as well as a "blues cabin" said to resemble the one where he took his first breath. A Muddy Waters memorial gazebo adjacent to a courthouse joins the other monuments.

Elsewhere in Rolling Fork is a bear carved from wood, made fresh once a year, to commemorate the town legend that it was instrumental in the creation of the teddy bear.

According to the legend, President Theodore Roosevelt came to the area in 1902 for a hunting expedition but wouldn't kill a wounded bear, saying that would be unsportsmanlike. The story spread, and stuffed bears known as teddy bears were sold in New York City to mark the tale.

"We consider ourselves the birthplace of Muddy Waters and of the Teddy Bear, thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 black bear hunt in Sharkey County," Cooper said.

She added, "Rolling Fork will recover and continue to tell those stories that are so special to everyone that lives or grew up here."

'It sounded like a freight train': Survivors recall tornado's wrath

ROLLING FORK, Miss — Just before 8 p.m. Friday, Andrew Dennard heard a newscaster tell the people of Rolling Fork to take cover for a tornado. He opened his front door to take a look and was hit by a blast of wind.

“It sounded like a freight train,” Dennard, 28, said.

As he and his wife leaned into the door to shut it, an airborne piece of wood crashed into it, shattering glass where Dennard’s head had been moments earlier.

They turned and rushed their three young children into the bathroom, where they cowered from the storm, which tossed a 10-foot wooden plank through their roof.  

Dennard emerged Saturday morning feeling lucky to be alive, but with his tiny rural Delta town in ruins: toppled trees, collapsed roofs, power lines and other poles listing precariously over roads, businesses wiped out, dozens dead or missing.

“I don’t think we’re going to rebuild from this,” Dennard said. “It’s worse than death.”

A sense of shock and numbness pervaded Rolling Fork on Saturday, along with the buzz of chainsaws and the thumping of helicopters and people on ATVs asking if anyone needed diapers or food.

“I thought we were dead,” Velma Warren said, holding a donated hamburger on the front porch of her damaged trailer home. “I’ve never seen nothing like that.”

Warren, 62, recalled reaching for her house slippers after hearing news that a tornado was on the way and not having time to put them on before it hit. She rounded up her two young grandchildren and took cover in a closet. The damage to her home was relatively minor — two shattered windows — but homes were obliterated a few doors down, crushed by trees and ripped open by the wind. The near miss had her feeling thankful.

“I don’t care if I don’t have shoes or a hat, I’m going to go to church in the morning,” she said.

Larry Norton sat on a sofa in his waterlogged home on Saturday afternoon, processing what he'd just been through. He said he was driving from the Laundromat when the tornado hit; the wind nearly lifter his car into the air. He scrambled out. The storm sounded like he was in a tunnel. He took cover in a nearby sheriff’s office building.

Norton, 26, returned home to find walls stripped to studs in some places, a tree resting across the roof. One of his relatives remained unaccounted for, he said.

"I’m just devastated. I can’t believe it,” he said.

Storm chaser describes 'apocalyptic' scene in Rolling Fork

Storm chasers Zachary Hall, 28, and Frankie Shepherd, 26, were some of the first people on the ground in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, after a “violent” tornado ripped through the community Friday night.  

Hall, of Greenwood, Arkansas, said they knew a tornado was about to hit and started honking their horn to warn residents. He said the National Weather Service had sent out an alert about 12 minutes before the tornado touched down, but the pair did not hear sirens go off.

“We started honking our horn trying to get people’s attention because I do not remember tornado sirens going off in that town. There was a tornado warning from the National Weather Service, but I do not remember tornado sirens, so we were honking the horn,” he said.

The tornado was on the ground for about a minute — long enough for it to level homes, destroy businesses and toss mangled vehicles onto piles of rubble.

“We drove into a war zone of people in a panic, people hurt. Everything was destroyed. … We could hear people yelling for help, screaming for help that were trapped,” he said.

The two men immediately jumped into action, pulling people from debris and carrying them to their car until first responders arrived.

Hall, who has been a storm chaser for about six years, said this was the worst tornado he has experienced. He said the scene in Rolling Fork was almost “apocalyptic” and reminded him of a “war zone movie scene.”

“You had people yelling and screaming for help. People coming out of every corner with blood all over them, cuts. People had been thrown around in this tornado. You could smell the natural gas. … The trees had sheet metal hanging from them so you could hear the clanging of the sheet metal," he said. "There’s vehicles flipped upside down on top of houses. It was like a movie, like a war zone movie scene.”

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency shares tips for safety after tornadoes

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said in a tweet that "Safety will be very important in the coming days as many Mississippians work to recover" after Friday's storms.

Residents should not drink tap water, touch downed power lines or cut anything other than wood with a chainsaw, the agency said, sharing more than a dozen other safety tips.

Mississippi death toll rises to 25, according to officials

The death toll in Mississippi following severe weather devastation in the state has risen to 25, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

One person was also reported dead in Alabama, making the total death toll at least 26.

"At this time the death toll has risen to 25 and dozens of others are injured," the agency said in a news release. "The fatalities are reported in Sharkey, Humphreys, Carroll, and Monroe counties."

The four people previously reported missing overnight have been accounted for, the agency added.

"Multiple state agencies and partners are working together to help in the response and recovery efforts," the agency said.

Volunteer on Mississippi rescue and recovery: ‘Just the beginning of the worst day’

Mississippi lawmakers weigh in on storm devastation across the state

Mississippi lawmakers have taken to Twitter to weigh in on the tornadoes that left parts of the state devastated Friday night.

"I am heartbroken by the loss of life and damage to communities," U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-MS., tweeted on Saturday. "I stand at the ready to support disaster declarations as we look to recover from the devastation these tornadoes left in their wake."

Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-MS., said he spoke with President Joe Biden and FEMA Administrator, Deanne Criswell, who assured him that they will expedite approval for the state's major disaster declaration.

"We will continue to work for the people who were impacted by this tragedy," Thompson tweeted.

Senator Roger Wicker, R-MS., is working with state, local, & federal officials to see that recovery efforts proceed at once," he wrote.

"Our delegation will work together to make sure Mississippi families & businesses receive prompt federal assistance," Wicker said.

Tens of thousands still without power across the South

As of 3:40 p.m. ET Saturday, tens of thousands of people remained without power across the South due to tornadoes in Mississippi, according to poweroutage.us.

Tennessee is currently affected the most, with 23,649 utility customers without power. Alabama trails behind with 14,913 utility customers without power, and Mississippi has the least with 7,493 in the dark.

Residents survey the damage in Rolling Fork, Mississippi

Wonder Bolden cradles her granddaughter Journey as she surveys the remains of her mother's mobile home in Rolling Fork, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP
A pickup truck rests on top of a restaurant cooler at Chuck's Dairy Cafe in Rolling Fork, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP
Charlie Weissinger tosses away debris in his father's demolished law office in Rolling Fork, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP

A timeline of watches and warnings issued before the tornadoes

Given the textbook meteorological setup, there was ample warning and lead time ahead of the tornado. A timeline:

  • The Storm Prediction Center first outlooked the area on Friday March 19, signaling there could be severe storms in that region six days in advance.
  • Tornado Watch issued for the Rolling Fork and Silver City region at 5:15 p.m. CDT.
  • First Tornado Warning issued for Rolling Fork and Silver City around 7:54 p.m. CDT.
  • First damage reports from the Storm Prediction Center came in around 8:05 p.m. CDT.
  • First Tornado Emergency tag came at 8:05 p.m. CDT.

Silver City had extraordinary lead time due to the long track nature of the tornado as it raced toward the city.

Friday's tornado hit a very vulnerable area, likely contributing to high death toll

All of the meteorological ingredients were present in Mississippi Friday night for a highly volatile day of severe weather and strong, long-track tornadoes. 

These ingredients included strong wind dynamics conducive for promoting spin in the atmosphere, record warm temperatures in the 80s across Mississippi, and also a record warm Gulf of Mexico providing extra warmth and moisture which fuels the storms. The result was a long-track supercell thunderstorm that tracked 80-100 miles, spawning a large and fast-moving tornado that threw debris more than 30,000 feet in the air.

Simply stating the weather factors that produced such a violent tornado does not solely explain the death toll. Instead, there are two other major factors that contributed to the loss of life:

1. Nightfall

Nocturnal tornadoes are twice as likely to be deadly compared to their daytime counterparts. This is because people are often sleeping so do not get warnings, or they can’t see the tornadoes coming in the darkness. The Southeast region gets more nocturnal tornadoes than any other region in the United States.

2. Geography of Vulnerability

Where the tornado tracked Friday night is an area of the country that has some of the highest social vulnerability in terms of poverty levels and density of mobile homes or manufactured housing that are not as strong or fortified to be able to withstand a tornado. The counties of Mississippi the violent tornado ripped through all have a high Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). The higher the SVI, the harder it is to recover from severe weather events. 

Inadequate shelter (or lack of access to better shelter options) combined with the inability to get alerts all under the cloak of darkness is what led to the high death toll, which is unfortunately only expected to climb. “On average, a total of 72 percent of all tornado-related fatalities are in homes and 54 percent of those fatalities are in mobile homes. When you are in a mobile home, you are 15 to 20 times more likely to be killed in comparison to when you are in a permanent home,” according to the National Weather Service.

People sit in front of a damaged home in Silver City, Miss.
People sit in front of a damaged home in Silver City, Miss., on Saturday.Michael Goldberg / AP

Does climate change have an effect on tornadoes?

While we cannot yet link climate change to the increase in the number of tornadoes that form annually worldwide, we can link the warming atmosphere to seasonal as well as spatial shifts in tornado behavior, according to recent studies. Here are some connections we can make:

1. A study published in 2021 found that because of the warming atmosphere, tornado-favorable environments during the winter months have increased across the southern Plains and Southeast. This suggests there will be more tornadoes in the United States during the months of December, January and February.

2. A 2018 study found that over the past 40 years, tornadoes have increased in frequency regionally from roughly Louisiana to Missouri and points east. This suggests that traditional “Tornado Alley” as we know it, which is in the Great Plains, could be shifting east into the more densely populated and highly vulnerable regions of the Southeast and Mississippi, Tennessee and Ohio River Valleys.

3. A 2016 study found that tornado outbreaks, or “outbreak days,” themselves are becoming more frequent. This happens when several tornadoes occur within a region within a short period of time. Historically, close to 80% of all U.S. tornado deaths occur during tornado outbreaks.

Most notably, new research released at the start of this year shows these storms are only expected to become more intense in a warming climate.

President Joe Biden offers 'full federal support' to Mississippi communities impacted by severe weather

President Joe Biden released a statement on Saturday offering "full federal support" to Mississippi communities that were impacted by tornadoes.

"Jill and I are praying for those who have lost loved ones in the devastating tornadoes in Mississippi and for those whose loved ones are missing," Biden said. "The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking."

Biden said he reached out to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and local lawmakers to express his condolences and "offer full federal support as communities recover from the effects of this storm." Reeves also tweeted about the conversation with Biden on Saturday.

Biden assured those affected by the storms, first responders and emergency personnel, that his administration would be there to help.

"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."

Mississippi restaurant owner and staff hid in walk-in cooler as tornado demolished building

The owner of a Rolling Fork, Mississippi, restaurant said she and members of her staff had to scurry into a "very small walk-in cooler," narrowly escaping a tornado that demolished the building.

"We are devastated at the loss of lives we keep hearing about and the hurt citizens we have been trying to care for tonight. The dairy bar crew was saved by a very small walk-in cooler and a bathroom. But truly saved by God," Tracy Hollins Harden, owner of Chuck’s Dairy Bar, wrote in a Facebook post.

She said they made it into the cooler one minute before the building was destroyed.

"We will grieve for our community and love on the hurt and we will prosper again together. I won’t question God. I will only ask Him for the strength to get us through," she said. "Thank you for all the prayers, calls and texts. Forever grateful to the customer with the broken arm that kept going and freed us all from the cooler."

At least 13 people were killed in Rolling Fork.

Mississippi Governor declares state of emergency in areas affected by severe weather

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency on Saturday in areas "affected by, or areas that may be affected by" the severe weather that hit the state.

"The provisions of this proclamation shall exist and remain in effect until such time as this threat to public safety shall cease to exist," the declaration read. "Further, all agencies of the State of Mississippi shall discharge their emergency responsibilities as deemed necessary as set forth in the State of Mississippi's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan."

Tracy Hardin, center, who with her husband Tim, left, consoles a neighbor in Rolling Fork, Miss.
Neighbors consoles each other in Rolling Fork, Miss., on Saturday. Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Man dies in Alabama after his trailer overturned during storm, officials say

One person was killed in Alabama after he was partially stuck in the mud when his trailer overturned, the Morgan County Sheriff's Office said. The man, who was not identified, was freed by first responders early Saturday morning but later died of his injuries.

Brandy Davis, with the Morgan County Emergency Management Department, confirmed the death Saturday afternoon.

In Mississippi, 23 people were killed, bringing the total number of death across the South to 24.

A sheriff’s deputy searches for survivors in Rolling Fork, Mississippi

A sheriff's deputy searches for survivors in Rolling Fork, Miss.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP

At least 12 tornadoes hit Mississippi and Alabama, National Weather Service reports

At least 12 tornadoes have hit Mississippi and Alabama since Friday night, according to the National Weather Service.

That number is expected to change as damage is surveyed over the next couple of days. One of the strongest tornadoes that the National Weather Service field office in Jackson will survey today will be in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. Radar data suggests the tornado was so strong that it sent debris 30,000 to 35,000 feet into the air. At least 13 people were killed there.

The agency said it received a total of nearly 80 severe weather reports since Friday night across eight different Southeastern states.

Image:
Law enforcement officers look for survivors in Rolling Fork, Miss., on Saturday.Rogelio Solis / AP

National Weather Service in Jackson deploys teams to assess damage in four Mississippi counties

The National Weather Service field office in Jackson has deployed three survey teams Saturday morning to assess the damage from Friday's tornadoes, according to a tweet from the agency.

The teams will be surveying damage in Sharkey County, where at least 13 people were found dead, Humphreys County and Holmes and Montgomery Counties. This process "may take a couple of days" the agency said.

"Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers are with everyone affected by the terrible storms yesterday. Please stay safe out there today!" the agency wrote.

Mississippi volunteer service asks residents not to self-deploy in rescue effort

The Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service is asking residents not to self-deploy in the rescue effort, according to a tweet from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

"If you would like to donate water or resources the Rolling Fork Civic Center is open to receive them," the agency wrote.

Among the 23 dead in Mississippi, 3 found in Carroll County and 2 in Humphreys County

Among the 23 people dead as a result of tornadoes in Mississippi, five were found in Carroll County and nearby Humphreys County.

The coroner’s office in Carroll County confirmed that three people were found dead in a destroyed house, while in Humphreys County, coroner Samuel Irving said two men had died as a result of a tornado in Silver City, a community of around 220 that’s about 30 miles east of Rolling Fork, where at least 13 people have been killed.

None of the victims had been identified by Saturday morning.

Tens of thousands remain without power across the South

As of 10 a.m. ET Saturday, tens of thousands of people remained without power across the South due to tornadoes in Mississippi, according to poweroutage.us.

In Mississippi, 13,457 customers were without power, while in Tennessee, 35,817 were without power. Around 19,231 were still without power in Alabama.

A father and his little girl among at least 23 people killed

A man and his daughter were killed in the house they were sheltering in with his wife and two other children, Monroe County Coroner Alan Gurley told NBC News.

He said that their bodies were found at the property in Wren, a large unincorporated community around 180 miles north of Jackson. The man’s wife and two other children were taken to a hospital, he said.

At least 21 other people were killed when tornadoes swept through Mississippi Friday night, Gov. Tate Reeves said, warning that “many more are injured.”