The mayor of a US town that was virtually wiped out in a killer storm has vowed to rebuild “bigger and better than ever before” as the extent of the devastation was revealed at first light.
The powerful storm ripped across the states of Mississippi and Alabama in the dead of night on Friday (local time), spawning at least one tornado that stayed on the ground for about an hour.
Entire homes were flipped upside down or smashed into splinters, cars were overturned and trees and powerlines torn down as the tornado cut a path of destruction some 270 kilometres long.
As the death toll climbed to 25 in Mississippi — and one killed in Alabama — there were warnings of more severe weather to come.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency, with housing and shelter for displaced residents emerging as one of the main issues in the recovery.
One of the worst-affected areas was the town of Rolling Fork, in western Mississippi. It was almost entirely flattened, and 12 people died.
Dramatic footage taken in the town showed homes reduced to piles of rubble, tree trunks snapped like twigs and cars that had been tossed aside.
The municipal water tower lay twisted on the ground.
One video captured the terrifying moments the tornado whacked a local school and sent debris flying down classroom corridors.
A storm chaser who saw the tornado approach 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,” Michael Searcy said.
“We were just basically in small groups, digging through the rubble, trying to find and extricate people.”
In Silver City, 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’.”
In Alabama, which was also struck by the same storm system, rescuers pulled a man from the mud when his trailer was overturned, but he died from his injuries, according to the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office.
US President Joe Biden described the images as “heartbreaking” and said in a statement he had spoken with Governor Reeves and offered 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,” Mr 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 Rolling Fork, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency director will travel to the state.
Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker said his town was gone “but we are resilient”.
“We are going to come back strong.”
Mayor Walker said he too was grieving the loss of people in the community.
“I’m not only just the mayor of this community, but I’ve lost personal friends. I’m also the local funeral director.
“Now I’m having to meet those who have lost loved ones and help them make it through. I’m a firm believer that when you do right, right will follow.”
The National Weather Service has deployed teams to assess the damage and determine how many tornadoes touched down.
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.
About 26,000 customers remained without power as of Saturday night in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee due to the storm, according to the website PowerOutage.us.
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