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Biden declares major disaster in Mississippi as forecasters warn of more tornadoes after 26 people were killed

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said the devastation is going to be “a long-term recovery event.”
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ROLLING FORK, Miss. — The tiny rural town lies in ruins. 

Trees toppled, roofs collapsed, power lines and poles listing precariously over roads after a tornado reduced much of it to rubble as it ripped through the Mississippi Delta late Friday, leaving a trail of devastation in one of the poorest regions of the country.

At least 25 people were killed in Mississippi, and one man died in Alabama.

“It sounded like a freight train,” Andrew Dennard, 28, told NBC News Saturday, adding that an airborne piece of wood narrowly missed his head as it crashed into his home in Rolling Fork, shattering glass. “I don’t think we’re going to rebuild from this,” Dennard added. “It’s worse than death.”

Early Sunday, President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Mississippi and ordered federal aid to supplement recovery efforts, the White House said in a statement. Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was also scheduled to visit Sunday to evaluate the destruction.  

Speaking at a news conference Sunday afternoon in Rolling Fork, Criswell said the devastation is going to be "a long-term recovery event" that will start in the four hardest-hit counties that Gov. Tate Reeves requested federal assistance for: Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe and Sharkey.

"FEMA is here. We remain committed to the people of Mississippi," Criswell said. "We will be here for you now, we will be here for you next week, we will be here long after these cameras are gone to make sure that we are assisting you with all of your recovery needs."

Reeves, who also spoke at the news conference, thanked Biden for signing the emergency declaration and assured the city of Rolling Fork that "help is on the way."

"What we've seen over the last 36 hours in Mississippi, on the one hand, has been heartbreaking, to see the loss and devastation of these communities, but, on the other hand, has been inspiring and gives me great reason for optimism," Reeves said.

But as recovery efforts continued, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center warned that severe thunderstorms would bring “the possibility of a couple of strong tornadoes” across the central Gulf states Sunday.

Reeves said the state has been monitoring the potential severe weather "very closely," the worst of which is expected south of Interstate 55.

"We do have MEMA personnel there, watching and prepared to dispatch whomever needs to be dispatched," he said.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency tweeted that residents should “have a plan” and “know their safe place.”  

It came after Gov. Reeves issued a state of emergency and vowed to help rebuild the region dotted with wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields, and catfish farming ponds. More than half a dozen shelters were opened in the state to house those displaced.

According to early data, Friday’s tornado received a preliminary EF-4 rating, the National Weather Service office in Jackson said in a tweet late Saturday, adding that it was still gathering information. 

An EF-4 tornado has top wind gusts between 166 mph and 200 mph, according to the service. 

Preliminary information based on estimates from storm reports and radar data indicate the tornado was on the ground for more than an hour and traversed at least 170 miles, Lance Perrilloux, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s office in Jackson, told the Associated Press. 

“That’s rare — very, very rare,” he said, attributing the long path to widespread atmospheric instability. He added that preliminary findings showed the tornado began its path of destruction just southwest of Rolling Fork before continuing northeast toward the rural communities of Midnight and Silver City, and onward toward Tchula, Black Hawk and Winona.

In Rolling Fork — the birthplace of Mississippi Delta blues musician Muddy Waters — Meg Cooper, a coordinator with Lower Delta Partnership, a nonprofit cultural programming and business group in the region, said Saturday that the damage was “extensive and devastating.”   

“This tornado cut a wide path destroying homes and most of our businesses,” she said, adding that damage to cultural monuments, including a site marking Waters’ birthplace, was not yet clear. 

Holding a donated hamburger on the front porch of her damaged trailer home in the town, in a separate interview Velma Warren said that she had never seen anything like the tornado. 

“I thought we were dead,” said Warren, 62, adding that she had taken cover in a closet with her two young grandchildren. 

While her home had two shattered windows, the damage was relatively minor when compared with other properties nearby that had been crushed by trees and ripped open by the wind.  

“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.

Bracey Harris reported from Rolling Fork and Leila Sackur from London.