Survivors left reeling after deadly Mississippi tornadoes

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Rolling Fork, Mississippi, resident Barbara Christopher and her family invested in a storm shelter in the 1980s after a storm damaged their roof. Four decades later, a violent EF4 tornado destroyed their home, with Barbara and her husband Charles losing nearly everything.

"You always see stuff like this on TV, ‘Oh that's just terrible,' it is," Christopher told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell. "It is terrible."

Christopher was one of many Rolling Fork residents struggling to pick up the pieces from the twister that leveled homes and businesses, part of a deadly outbreak of tornadoes in Mississippi Friday night. According to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, 21 people were killed from the severe weather. Christopher told Wadell after the tornado strike that others should take heed of severe warnings.

"I would say in a heartbeat, take it seriously ... God was with us; He was watching over us," Christopher said. Christopher and her husband were not injured in the storm, even with debris flying inside their cellar.

Some survivors were severely distraught after the tornado slammed into the town of just under 1,800 residents. Rolling Fork resident Kelly Perry was emotional while recounting the events of Friday night after he and his wife survived in a tiny corner closet of the house that collapsed on them.

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"If we wouldn't have been in the closet, we wouldn't be here right now," Perry said.

Damage assessment continued in Mississippi on Monday after strong tornadoes battered the state, including an EF3 twister that struck Winona in the central part of the state. The Rolling Fork tornado was given a preliminary EF4 rating by the National Weather Service office in Jackson, with the office sharing other preliminary stats about the severe event.

MORE TO SEE: Before and after aerial imagery of the Rolling Fork EF4 tornado damage

Before & After Satellite photos of Rolling Fork, MS tornado.

Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies.

The tornado's path was approximately 59 miles, beginning in northern Issaquena County and ending in northern Holmes County. The maximum path width of the storm was three-quarters of a mile, and the tornado lasted for approximately 70 minutes between around 8 p.m. and 9:10 p.m., local time.

In a Monday press release, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials noted that search and rescue efforts were demobilized, and shared preliminary damage reports from the storms. The agency stated that the seven impacted counties Friday reported 1,621 damaged homes, with the vast majority of them coming in Monroe County, where an EF3 tornado struck.

The response was swift in Rolling Fork, as those from outside the city rushed to help those impacted. Ann Woods, a resident of nearby Delta City, was "heartbroken" when she heard the news of a tornado striking the city where she graduated high school in 1968.

"When we heard about it, we immediately came over here," Woods told Wadell. "We have a good friend that runs an [auto parts store] over here, and we went and helped him get his guns and ammunition and all his valuable stuff out and took it back to his house. We got home about 4 a.m. [Saturday morning], and [came] back again." Woods went around on her 4-wheeler early Saturday, delivering water and snacks to responders and anyone else who needed it.

Responders aiding in tornado cleanup, including the cleanup of downed trees, were forced to utilize spotlights after the tornado struck during the evening hours. Baeley Williams, one of the responders in Rolling Fork, told AccuWeather that the town was "unrecognizable" when she arrived.

On Sunday morning, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves briefed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, among other officials, on the situation and the impact the tornadoes had on the state. Reeves' request for federal assistance for impacted counties was approved by the White House.

"Thank you to our entire federal delegation for the support and to President Biden for recognizing the scale of the damage in Mississippi and quickly approving our disaster declaration - a critical step in disaster response," Reeves wrote on Twitter. "Respond, recover, rebuild together. That is the mission."

Biden released a statement Saturday, saying he had 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."

In addition to the Rolling Fork EF4, at least a dozen tornadoes were confirmed to have touched down across the South Friday night, including two EF3 twisters.

Additional severe weather ignited on Sunday across the South, including a tornado in LaGrange, Georgia, that injured multiple people and caused significant damage.

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