Death toll rises following devastating tornadoes in Mississippi

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At least 25 people were killed by violent tornadoes that touched down in Mississippi on Friday night, according to the state's emergency management agency. The twisters left behind total devastation in their wake including in the western Mississippi town of Rolling Fork, which took a direct hit from an EF4 tornado, according to a preliminary rating by the National Weather Service. The town was hit particularly hard by the large tornado that leveled homes and businesses, leaving people trapped in the process. The same storm was also responsible for other strong tornadoes, including an EF3 twister that struck Winona, Mississippi.

Fatalities were reported in Sharkey, Humphreys, Carroll and Monroe counties. Dozens of others were injured. Four people reported missing on Friday night have been accounted for.

On Saturday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency for counties affected by the severe weather.

"The state of Mississippi will continue doing everything we can to marshal every resource available to support our fellow Mississippians who are in need," Reeves said according to a Mississippi Emergency Management Agency press release.

"We have numerous local and state search and rescue teams that continue to work this morning," the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency tweeted early Saturday morning, adding that aid was on "the ground to assist those that have been impacted."

Responders helping with tornado cleanup, including those aiding in the clearing of trees, were forced to utilize spotlights after the tornado struck under the cover of darkness. A large and destructive tornado was confirmed on radar near Rolling Fork and Anguilla, Mississippi, long after sunset, kicking off the first of at least four tornado emergencies that would be issued for the state within the span of two hours.

"Houses [were] completely demolished, businesses demolished...pretty much most of the town is unrecognizable right now," Baeley Williams, one of the responders in Rolling Fork, told AccuWeather.

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center had a tally of 12 tornadoes spanning from western Mississippi to northern Alabama on Friday. On Saturday, the National Weather Service survey team said an EF2 tornado occurred in Fayetteville, Tennessee, late Friday night. The tornado had maximum winds of 118 mph. An additional EF2 tornado occurred on Friday night in Morgan County, Alabama.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted that search and rescue teams were still active on Saturday morning.

"The loss will be felt in these towns forever," he added, noting that it is likely that there are additional injuries.

A radar image of the storms closing in on Rolling Fork, Mississippi, Friday night.

Reeves later said he was en route to Sharkey County to meet with storm victims, describing the devastating storms as a "tragedy."

President Joe Biden released a statement Saturday, saying he has reached out to Reeves and other officials to express "condolences and offer full federal support as communities recover from the effects of this storm."

"The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking," Biden said. "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 homes and businesses."

As the tornadoes touched down, stark warnings were issued by the National Weather Service (NWS).

"You are in a life-threatening situation...this is a particularly dangerous situation. Take cover now!" the first tornado emergency alert stated. A tornado emergency is the highest level of severity for a tornado-related alert issued by the NWS, and the alert from Friday night was the fifth issued so far in 2023.

The twister was first located over Rolling Fork, a town roughly 60 miles northwest of Jackson, Mississippi, and moving northeast at 50 miles per hour.

"The damage in Rolling Fork, Mississippi is BAD. People are trapped, we need help here," wrote Twitter user Zachary Hall. He included a photo of tangled debris and at least one overturned car.

Some Rolling Fork residents had little time to prepare, such as Dana Dew and her husband.

A drone captured this image of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, residents surveying the damage after a deadly tornado. (AccuWeather/Mike Scantlin)

"He jumped up out of the bed, and I jumped up out of the bed, and he threw me in the closet and held on to me, and we rode it out," Dew told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell.

One Rolling Fork resident credited an underground shelter built in the 1980's for saving her life during the tornado. When the destructive tornado approached Rolling Fork, Barbara Christopher and her husband went to their underground shelter to safely protect themselves from the incoming danger.

"The door flew open in the storm cellar and stuff started coming in...I closed my eyes and grabbed a hold of my husband and I started screaming and hollering and I said we're losing our house, we're losing our house, and about that time it was over with," Christopher told Wadell.

The NWS reported that the destructive tornado had left an unknown number of people trapped in a Family Dollar store in the town, citing Amateur Radio (AR), and noted at least one injury had occurred in Rolling Fork.

Shortly after reports began flooding in, Extreme Meteorologist Reed Timmer broke away from storm chasing to transport injured residents of the town to a Vicksburg hospital, stating they needed emergency personnel immediately.

"The strong rotation signature became quite evident on radar shortly before it struck the community of Rolling Fork, Mississippi," AccuWeather Meteorologist Isaac Longley said. "Not long after the storm cell was showing strong rotation, there was a clear debris ball that showed up on the correlation coefficient product on radar. This is what prompted the NWS to quickly issue the tornado emergency for Rolling Fork and nearby communities."


The second tornado emergency was issued east of the original tornado emergency, covering Tchula, Sidon and North Carrollton, Mississippi, shortly after 8:40 p.m. CDT. The third alert followed just before 9:30 p.m. local time, again farther east, covering Winona, Eupora and Vaiden.

Yet another was issued in the state around 10:50 p.m. CDT for Amory, Aberdeen and Smithville in eastern Mississippi.

The tornado threat began earlier Friday after at least two EF1 tornadoes were confirmed to have touched down that morning, both in Parker County, Texas. The first twister struck near Whitt, an unincorporated community roughly 42 miles northwest of Fort Worth. The second tore through Poolville and into southern Wise County. No fatalities were reported.

The severe weather brought with it dangerous flash flooding, which killed at least two young adults, with another missing. Fox 2 reported Friday that a car containing six young adults had been swept away while near the town of Grovespring when the driver had attempted to cross a bridge over a swollen creek. At least four of the vehicle's occupants made it out of the water, said Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Thomas Young. This included the driver, who had told authorities that downpours had made it difficult to see the water from the creek covering the bridge.

The body of Devon Holt, 20, and the body of Alexander Roman-Ranelli, 19, were recovered Friday morning.

The search continues for a woman who had gone missing near Granby, Missouri, following flash flooding from a small river that washed a car off the road.

A flood watch had been in effect for some 15 million people on Friday, spanning from Arkansas to West Virginia. By 4:30 p.m. CT, the watch had spanned across eight states, including Missouri.

Additional severe weather ignited on Sunday across some of the same states that were hit by tornadic thunderstorms on Friday. Locations from Lake Charles, Louisiana, to Columbia, South Carolina, could be at risk, including other major cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Montgomery, Alabama. Sunday is expected to start of a wet pattern across much of the Southeast that could last in the area for several days.

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