By Sarah Ozbun, Emily Cochrane and Richard Fausset
An ominous wedge appeared in the night sky over one of the poorest regions of the American South late Friday. When it touched down, it nearly obliterated the small Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork — one of numerous scenes of destruction and heartbreak across swaths of Mississippi and Alabama as tornadoes left at least 24 people dead, dozens more injured, and homes and businesses smashed to pieces.
Emergency officials were scrambling Saturday to rescue people and assess the damage. At least four people were also missing, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said, adding in a somber update on Twitter that the numbers were expected to change as search teams surveyed the destruction over the coming days. At least 23 people were killed in Mississippi, the epicenter of the damage, and another person died in Alabama.
In Rolling Fork, a town of about 2,000 people near Mississippi’s western border, the extent of the damage began to come into view at daybreak Saturday.
“My city is gone,” Mayor Eldridge Walker said Saturday morning in an interview on CNN.
Videos captured by videographers and storm chasers during the tornado and in the hours after showed homes leveled into piles of wood and debris, trees stripped of their branches, and cars smashed into one another. A battered water tower appeared to have crumpled, and emergency officials said downed power lines were preventing some crews from getting to the area.
Just under 100,000 electricity customers in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee were without power, with some of the worst-hit counties nearly completely knocked out, according to the tracking site poweroutage.us.
Mike Barlow, who lives in Rolling Fork, was watching the local weather channel Friday evening when a meteorologist warned viewers to take shelter immediately. The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado was moving toward the town at 8:05 p.m.
“I thought, ‘This is not good,’” Barlow said. He had just enough time to put on pants and boots and to tell his wife, Kathy, to get off the phone and grab her purse before the tornado destroyed their home.
“It roared, and the next thing you knew, the roof left,” he said Saturday as he loaded what he could salvage into the back of his pickup truck. As he scanned his neighborhood, now just as level as the Delta’s flat farmland, Barlow said, “It was the worst thing I have ever been through.”
As residents assessed what had been lost, President Joe Biden said in a statement that he would ensure federal support for the region, pledging that “we will be there as long as it takes.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who toured neighborhoods in Rolling Fork on Saturday, said, “We’re going to fight like hell to make sure that we get as many resources to this area as possible.”
Meteorologists were still working to determine the size of the storms and whether “it was just one big long tornado that caused all of the damage, or if it lifted” and then dropped another one, said Janae Elkins, a meteorologist with the weather service.
Patients from Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital, which serves Rolling Fork and other rural Delta communities, had been transferred to other hospitals in the area, as neighboring counties sent ambulances and support staff to help.
Aaron Rigsby, a videographer and storm chaser who filmed the tornado, said in an interview that he had watched it develop from a “small cone” into a “massive wedge.”
After the tornado hit Rolling Fork, Rigsby said, he went door to door through the town, rescuing people who were trapped in their vehicles or in destroyed homes, including a woman who had been buried by rubble. He added that it had taken ambulances at least 30 minutes to arrive in Rolling Fork because the area is so rural.
The tornado also caused damage in Silver City, Mississippi, about 30 miles east of Rolling Fork, the weather service office in Jackson, Mississippi, said on Twitter. Officials said the Mississippi deaths were in Sharkey, Carroll, Humphreys and Monroe counties.
“We are still doing search and recoveries,” said Mark Stiles, the local coroner. “We are trying to cut trees to get into where people are living.”
Rolling Fork was the birthplace of blues singer Muddy Waters and sits between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Its residents, most of whom are Black, live with the risk of flooding from backwater levees along the Yazoo; one-fifth of them are under the federal poverty line.
Severe weather season in the South reaches its peak during March, April and May, meteorologists said. Earlier this month, powerful storms swept across the region, leaving at least 12 people dead and hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity, and damaging homes in at least eight states.
Nighttime tornadoes, called nocturnal tornadoes, such as those Friday night, are twice as likely to be deadly than their daytime counterparts, experts have said. People are typically asleep and are slower to respond to a warning, and the tornadoes are harder to see coming in the dark.
In Rolling Fork, many residents said that what shocked them the most was just how quickly the storm appeared and then left their once-quaint farm town.
“I got in my closet and it came through like a freight train,” one resident, Mary Rockingham, said, standing in her driveway looking at what was left of her trailer. “It was calm. I had power. And then it hit.”
Her roof had blown away, but a string of lights remained on the trailer’s siding.
“It doesn’t feel real,” Rockingham said. “We are blessed that we are still here.”