ROLLING FORK, Miss. -- Rescuers raced Saturday to search for survivors and help hundreds of people left homeless after a powerful tornado cut a devastating path through Mississippi, killing at least 25 people, injuring dozens and flattening entire blocks. One person was killed in Alabama.
The tornado devastated a swath of the Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars on their sides and toppling the town's water tower. Residents hunkered down in bath tubs and hallways during Friday night's storm and later broke into a John Deere store that they converted into a triage center for the wounded.
"There's nothing left," said Wonder Bolden, holding her granddaughter, Journey, while standing outside the remnants of her mother's now-leveled mobile home in Rolling Fork. "There's just the breeze that's running, going through -- just nothing."
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency announced Saturday afternoon in a tweet that the death toll had risen to 25 and that dozens of people were injured. Four people previously reported missing had been found.
"My city is gone," Mayor Eldridge Walker said Saturday morning in an interview on CNN.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a State of Emergency and vowed to help rebuild as he headed to view the damage in an area speckled with wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds.
As residents assessed what had been lost, President Joe Biden said in a statement he would ensure federal support for the region, pledging that "we will be there as long as it takes."
The damage in Rolling Fork was so widespread that several storm chasers -- who follow severe weather and often put up livestreams showing dramatic funnel clouds -- pleaded for search and rescue help. Others abandoned the chase to drive injured people to the hospital.
It didn't help that the community hospital on the west side of town was damaged, forcing patients to be transferred. The tornado also mangled a cotton warehouse and ripped the steeple off a Baptist church.
The heart of Mississippi's old cotton kingdom, like the state of Mississippi more broadly, also has trouble maintaining an adequate health care system. The hospital in Rolling Fork, like others in the region, has struggled to stay in business in recent years.
But Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the top executive at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, said the state had also learned many lessons about how to respond to major disasters since Mississippi was ravaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
Woodward said crews from the medical center were able to send "scene triage" groups to the affected areas Friday night, which helped move injured people to hospitals around the state. As of early Saturday, she said, 18 patients had been sent to the medical center in Jackson.
Preliminary information based on estimates from storm reports and radar data indicate that the tornado was on the ground for more than an hour and traversed at least 170 miles, said Lance Perrilloux, a meteorologist with the weather service's Jackson, Miss., office.
"That's rare -- very, very rare," he said, attributing the long path to widespread atmospheric instability. "All the ingredients were there."
Perrilloux said preliminary findings are that the tornado began its path of destruction just southwest of Rolling Fork before continuing northeast toward the rural communities of Midnight and Silver City, then moving toward Tchula, Black Hawk and Winona.
The tornado looked so powerful on radar as it neared the town of Amory, about 25 miles southeast of Tupelo, that one Mississippi meteorologist paused to say a prayer after new radar information came in.
"Oh man," WTVA's Matt Laubhan said during a live broadcast. "Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen."
Now, that town is under a boil order and a curfew is in effect.
Hundreds of volunteers converged Saturday on Rolling Fork from surrounding counties to offer a hand.
Nurses tended to the injured. Farmers used their tractors to move trees, cars and heavy debris. Others brought grills, setting up on the perimeter of town and cooking hamburgers.
Royce Steed, the emergency manager in Humphreys County where Silver City is located, likened the damage to Hurricane Katrina.
"It is almost complete devastation," he said after crews finished searching buildings and switched to damage assessments. "This little old town, I don't know what the population is, it is more or less wiped off the map."
Sheddrick Bell, his partner and two daughters crouched in a closet of their Rolling Fork home for 15 minutes as the tornado barreled through. Windows broke as his daughters cried and his partner prayed.
"I was just thinking, 'If I can still open my eyes and move around, I'm good,'" he said.
Rodney Porter, who lives about 20 miles south of Rolling Fork and belongs to a local fire department, said he didn't know how anyone survived as he delivered water and fuel to families there.
"It's like a bomb went off," he said, describing houses stacked on top of houses. Crews even cut gas lines to the town to keep residents and first responders safe.
The warning the National Weather Service issued as the storm hit didn't mince words: "To protect your life, TAKE COVER NOW!"
Cornel Knight waited at a relative's home in Rolling Fork for the tornado to strike with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. Despite the darkness, its path was visible.
"You could see the direction from every transformer that blew," he said. Just a cornfield away from where he was, the twister struck another relative's home, collapsing a wall and trapping several people.
In Silver City, the roof had torn off Noel Crook's home.
"Yesterday was yesterday and that's gone -- there's nothing I can do about it," Crook said. "Tomorrow is not here yet. You don't have any control over it, so here I am today."
Three shelters in the state are feeding the throngs of displaced people.
"It's a priceless feeling to see the gratitude on people's faces to know they're getting a hot meal," said William Trueblood, of the Salvation Army, as he headed to the area, picking up supplies along the way.
TORNADO DEADLIEST IN OVER A DECADE
Other parts of the Deep South were digging out from damage caused by other suspected twisters. With at least 26 people dead, tornadoes that ravaged parts of the region overnight were the deadliest in the state in more than a decade, according to National Weather Service records.
By comparison, 31 people died in Mississippi in April 2011 during tornadoes that tore through several states, mostly in the southeastern U.S., weather service meteorologist Chris Outler said Saturday. Alabama was hit hardest during that so-called "super outbreak" of hundreds of twisters that killed more than 320 people and caused an estimated $12 billion in damage.
Just a month later, another deadly twister ripped through Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people. Outler, in Las Vegas, called 2011 "the headline year for tornadoes for the last 20 years or so."
Records show that 12 people died in Mississippi during Easter storms in April 2020, and 10 died in the state during a tornado event in April 2014.
Throughout Saturday, survivors walked around dazed and in shock as they broke through debris and fallen trees with chain saws, searching for survivors. Power lines were pinned under decades-old oaks, their roots torn from the ground.
The supercell that produced the deadly twister also appeared to produce tornadoes that caused damage in northwest and north-central Alabama, said Brian Squitieri, a severe storms forecaster with the weather service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.
One man died in northern Alabama's Morgan County, the sheriff's office there said in a tweet.
The 67-year-old became trapped beneath a trailer that flipped over during severe overnight storms was rescued by first responders, but he died later at a hospital, AL.com reported.
Brandy Davis, director of the Morgan County Emergency Management, said the man's death was the only one reported in Alabama so far.
Even as survey teams work to assess how many tornadoes struck and their severity, the Storm Prediction Center warned of the potential for hail, wind and possibly a few tornadoes today in parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Despite the damage, there were signs of improvement. Power outages, which at one point were affecting more than 75,000 customers in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, had been cut by a third by Saturday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.
Meteorologists saw a big tornado risk coming for the general region as much as a week in advance, said Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley.
Tornado experts like Ashley have been warning about increased risk exposure in the region because of people building more.
"You mix a particularly socioeconomically vulnerable landscape with a fast-moving, long-track nocturnal tornado, and, disaster will happen," Ashley said in an email.
Information for this article was contributed by Emily Wagster Pettus, Michael Goldberg, Rogelio Solis, Jim Salter, Rick Callahan, Heather Hollingsworth, Lisa Baumann, Robert Jablon, Seth Borenstein, Jackie Quinn and staff members of The Associated Press and by Sarah Kramer Ozbun, Emily Cochrane and Richard Fausset of The New York Times.
Gallery: Deadly tornado in Mississippi