At least 23 dead as 'destructive' tornado, storms batter Mississippi

ByWill McDuffie ABCNews logo
Sunday, March 26, 2023

A deadly tornado and strong thunderstorms swept across Mississippi late Friday, killing at least 23 people and leaving a trail of destruction for more than 100 miles, local and federal authorities said.

Search and rescue operations were underway in Sharkey and Humphreys counties, Mississippi's Emergency Management Agency said. The agency issued a series of tornado warnings in counties throughout the state.

"Many in the MS Delta need your prayer and God's protection tonight," Gov. Tate Reeves said on Twitter. "We have activated medical support -- surging more ambulances and other emergency assets for those affected. Search and rescue is active."

President Joe Biden on Saturday said he is praying for those who lost their loved ones in the tornadoes.

"The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking. While we are still assessing the full extent of the damage, we know that many of our fellow Americans are not only grieving for family and friends, they've lost their homes and businesses," Biden said.

He went on, "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. We will be there as long as it takes. We will work together to deliver the support you need to recover."

Reeves issued a state of emergency in all counties affected by the severe storms.

"I'm devastated by the destruction and loss of life that these storms have caused," Reeves said in a statement. "The state of Mississippi will continue doing everything we can to marshal every resource available to support our fellow Mississippians who are in need. The state will be there to help them rebuild. We're not going anywhere and we're in it for the long haul. Please join me in praying for the family and friends of those who lost loved ones in this trying time."

Dozens of injuries have been reported, the state emergency agency said on Twitter. Four people have been reported missing.

The fatalities are reported in Sharkey, Humphreys, Carroll, and Monroe counties, according to state officials.

Thirteen people died in Sharkey County, coroner Angelia Easton told ABC News. Jose Watson, a Mississippi Highway Patrol trooper, said one person died in Silver City, in Humphreys County.

A FEMA team is en route to assist the state. The Department of Homeland Security also said it is offering assistance to Mississippi communities impacted by the tornado.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the communities in Mississippi that have been struck by the devastating tornadoes. I have spoken with Governor @tatereeves, @SenatorWicker, @SenHydeSmith, and Congressman @BennieGThompson. Through @FEMA, DHS will provide support to the impacted communities as we work together to respond and recover from this disaster," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a Tweet.

As thunderstorms battered the state late Friday, a tornado was reported at about 8:50 p.m. local time in the area of Silver City and Rolling Fork, the National Weather Service said.

Rolling Fork was "pretty much devastated," United Cajun Navy President Todd Terrell told ABC News.

From there, the tornado rolled on to the northwest side of Tchula and along Highway 49, officials said.

A tornado emergency alert was issued for Winona, a city about 100 miles northeast of Rolling Fork, with a "destructive tornado moving northeast through town," NWS officials said.

Edgar O'Neal, a storm chaser who was on the ground in Rolling Fork, said the tornado caused "complete and utter devastation."

"Houses gone. Gas stations destroyed. Trees, power lines blocking entrances everywhere. Stray animals. People wandering the streets clearly in shock. There were a lot of people on the ground helping," O'Neal said in an interview on "GMA."

Atmos Energy has cut gas lines in Rolling Fork for the safety of all residents and first responders, according to state officials.

Jourdan Hartshorn, Mississippi coordinator for the United Cajun Navy, told ABC News the devastation in Rolling Fork reminded him of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, saying most of the buildings were damaged or destroyed, apart from some facilities on the outskirts of town.

"It's bad out here," Hartshorn said. "It's literally devastation. Ground Zero."

He assisted in search and rescue operations, which uncovered more bodies.

"I hate to say it -- deceased people left and right," he said. "I'm from Mississippi, in the lower end, where hurricanes come in and this is what it looks like. I mean, it looks like ground zero after Katrina."

Multiple teams and the Mississippi State Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks are on the ground in Rolling Fork, Amory and Monroe Counties, according to state officials.

State officials said there is "significant damage" in Amory along Highways 6 and 35.

"Crews from Monroe County are unable to get into Amory from the south where their headquarters is located due to the number of power lines that are down across the road. Crews from Itawamba County are coming from the north to assess damage in Smithville and cut any trees across the road on their way to Amory," Mississippi State Emergency Operations Center said in a press release.

Watson urged people to stay away from Silver City unless they have family there. He said the scene was "chaotic," with traffic making it difficult for rescue crews to do their jobs.

"Please be advised, Silver City has been hit really, really hard with a tornado," Watson said in a video posted on Facebook, before later describing the damage to some areas as "very catastrophic."

Terrell said he based his description of the storm on information from 17 of the organization's volunteers in Rolling Fork.

"I would say that it's in Joplin or worse," referencing the 2011 tornado that killed 161 people.

He said his team's main priority is assisting in rescues, noting that "there's a lot of people still trapped in their homes." He also flagged clean water and food as a significant concern.

"It seems as though the big ones hit at night and you don't have a warning for them," he said. "We knew that it was going to be bad in areas, but nobody can prepare to prepare for this total devastation."

ABC News Ahmad Hemingway contributed to this story.

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