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UNITED STATES

Daunting recovery under way in tornado-devastated Mississippi

Published:Monday | March 27, 2023 | 12:24 AM
Wendell Sturdevant, of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, calls his wife as friends and his niece search through the rubble of what was a Blue Front Apartments duplex unit that he and his mother lived in.
Wendell Sturdevant, of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, calls his wife as friends and his niece search through the rubble of what was a Blue Front Apartments duplex unit that he and his mother lived in.

Help began pouring into one of the poorest regions of the US after a deadly tornado wrought a path of destruction in the Mississippi Delta, even as furious new storms Sunday struck Georgia, where two tigers briefly escaped their badly damaged safari park.

At least 25 people were killed and dozens of others were injured in Mississippi as the massive storm ripped through several towns on its hour-long path late Friday. One man was killed in Alabama after his trailer home flipped over several times.

Search and recovery crews resumed the daunting task of digging through the debris of flattened and battered homes, commercial buildings and municipal offices after hundreds of people were displaced.

Jarrod Kunze drove to the hard-hit town of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, from his home in Alabama after hearing about the storm, ready to volunteer “in whatever capacity I’m needed”.

“The town is devastated,” Kunze said, “Everything I can see is in some state of destruction.”

Kunze was among several volunteers working Sunday morning at a staging area, where cases of bottled water and other supplies were being prepared for distribution.

President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi early Sunday, making federal funding available to the areas hardest hit.

RECOVERY EFFORTS

The recovery efforts in Mississippi were under way even as the National Weather Service warned of a new risk of more severe weather Sunday, including high winds, large hail and possible tornadoes in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

A tornado reportedly touched down early Sunday in Troup County, Georgia, near the Alabama border, according to the Georgia Mutual Aid Group. Affected areas included the county seat of LaGrange, about 67 miles (about 108 kilometres) south west of Atlanta.

“Many buildings damaged, people trapped,” the agency said on Facebook. In nearby West Point, roads, including Interstate Highway 85, were blocked by debris. “If you do not have to get on the roads this morning please do not travel.”

Two tigers “briefly escaped” early Sunday from their enclosures at Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Georgia, after the park sustained extensive tornado damage, the park announced on its Facebook page. “THE TIGERS ARE SAFE!,” the park added, “Both have now been found, tranquilised, and safely returned to a secure enclosure.” It added that none of its employees or animals were hurt.

The twister flattened entire blocks, obliterated houses, ripped a steeple off a church and toppled a municipal water tower.

Based on early data, the tornado received a preliminary EF-4 rating, the National Weather Service office in Jackson said late Saturday in a tweet. An EF-4 tornado has top wind gusts between 166 mph and 200 mph (265 kph and 320 kph), according to the service. The Jackson office cautioned it was still gathering information on the tornado.

CASUALTIES

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a briefing that 25 people were confirmed killed in Mississippi, 55 people were injured and 2,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. High winds, hail and strong storms were expected for parts of Alabama and Georgia on Sunday, the National Weather Service said.

“How anybody survived is unknown by me,” said Rodney Porter, who lives 20 miles (32 kilometres) south of Rolling Fork. When the storm hit Friday night, he immediately drove there to assist. Porter arrived to find “total devastation” and said he smelled natural gas and heard people screaming for help in the dark.

“Houses are gone, houses stacked on top of houses with vehicles on top of that,” he said.

Annette Body, who drove to the hard-hit town of Silver City from nearby Belozi, said she was feeling “blessed” because her own home was not destroyed, but other people lost everything.

“Cried last night, cried this morning,” she said, looking around at flattened homes, “They said you need to take cover, but it happened so fast a lot of people didn’t even get a chance to take cover.”

Storm survivors walked around Saturday, many dazed and in shock, as they broke through thickly clustered debris and fallen trees with chain saws, searching for survivors. Power lines were pinned under decades-old oaks, their roots torn from the ground.

More than a half-dozen shelters were opened in Mississippi to house those who have been displaced.

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 (274 kilometers), said Lance Perrilloux, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Jackson, Mississippi, office.

“That’s rarem very, very rare,” he said, attributing the long path to widespread atmospheric instability.

The supercell that produced the deadly twister also appeared to produce tornadoes causing damage in north west and north-central Alabama, said Brian Squitieri, a severe storms forecaster with the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.