Rescuers combed through rubble on Saturday (Mar 25) after a powerful storm tore across Mississippi overnight, killing at least 25 people there and another in Alabama, leveling dozens of buildings and spawning at least one devastating tornado.
The tornado stayed on the ground for about an hour and cut a path of destruction some 274km long, according to preliminary information, said Nicholas Price, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, Mississippi.
Video taken in the town of Rolling Fork, a town of 1,700 in western Mississippi that was hit hardest, showed homes reduced to rubble, tree trunks snapped like twigs and cars that had been tossed aside. The town's water tower lay twisted on the ground.
Michael Searcy, a storm chaser who saw the tornado approach Rolling Fork, spent hours helping to rescue trapped people.
"As soon as we would go from one vehicle to the next vehicle or from building to building, we could hear screams and we could hear cries for help," he told Reuters. "And we were just basically in small groups, digging through the rubble, trying to find and extricate people."
Members of one family narrowly escaped by taking shelter in a bathroom; the rest of the house collapsed around them, and the high winds dropped a van on top of the home, Searcy said.
In Silver City, a town of around 300, residents described locking themselves in interior rooms and cowering inside bathtubs as the tornado swept through.
"I thought about God," said Katherine Ray. "I just started saying, 'I followed the Ten Commandments, Lord, it's just me at the house,' and I just said, 'Just take care of me.'"
Her prayer was answered, she said; her trailer was damaged but still standing, while many of her neighbours saw their trailers completely destroyed.
Governor Tate Reeves, who visited the tornado-struck town of Silver City, declared a state of emergency in the affected areas.
"The scale of the damage and loss is evident everywhere affected today," he wrote on Twitter. "Homes, businesses ... entire communities."
In Alabama, which was also struck by the same storm system, rescuers pulled a man from the mud when his trailer was overturned, but the man died from his injuries, according to the Morgan County Sheriff's Office. That appeared to be the only reported death in that state as of Saturday afternoon.
US President Joe Biden described the images from Mississippi as "heartbreaking" and said in a statement that he had spoken with Reeves and offered his condolences and full federal support for the recovery.
"To those impacted by these devastating storms, and to the first responders and emergency personnel working to help their fellow Americans, 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 officials set up three emergency shelters, including at the National Guard Armory in Rolling Fork. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Deanne Criswell will travel to Mississippi on Sunday, the White House said.
About 26,000 customers remained without power as of Saturday evening in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee due to the storm, according to the website PowerOutage.us.
'MY CITY IS GONE'
Mississippi's emergency management agency said on Saturday afternoon that the death toll had risen to 25, with dozens more injured. Four people who had been reported missing earlier have been located, the agency said.
At least 12 of those deaths occurred in Rolling Fork, its mayor, Eldridge Walker, told CNN earlier in the day.
"My city is gone, but we are resilient," Walker said on CNN. "We are going to come back strong."
Jarrett Brown, a volunteer with the disaster response organisation Team Rubicon who traveled in Rolling Fork, told Reuters the damage showed that the storm was inescapable for some residents.
"In some of these areas, there was no safe spot to go to," he said via a video call.
Tim and Tracy Harden, owners of Chuck's Dairy Barn in Rolling Fork, said in a Facebook post that they hid inside a small walk-in cooler one minute before the tornado demolished their building.
"Forever grateful to the customer with the broken arm that kept going and freed us all from the cooler," they wrote.
The National Weather Service has deployed teams to assess the damage and determine how many tornados touched down, according to Price, the meteorologist.
At least 24 reports of tornadoes, stretching from western Mississippi into Alabama, were issued to the National Weather Service on Friday night and into Saturday morning by storm chasers and observers.