The death toll is expected to rise as search and rescue efforts continue across storm-stricken areas.
At least 23 people have been killed after a tornado and severe storms swept through the US state of Mississippi.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) said there were “dozens injured” and four people missing as search and rescue teams combed through the destruction looking for survivors after the storm struck Silver City in Western Mississippi.
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Tornadoes sweep through central United States, knocking out power
Storm brings tornado damage to Gulf Coast region of Texas
Photos: Death toll expected to rise after tornadoes strike US
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“Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to change,” it said, referring to the death toll.
Search and rescue operations were under way in Sharkey and Humphreys counties, about 110km (70 miles) north of state capital Jackson, according to broadcaster ABC.
“We have activated medical support – surging more ambulances and other emergency assets for those affected. Search and rescue is active,” Governor Tate Reeves said on Twitter, warning residents to “watch weather reports and stay cautious”.
President Joe Biden on Saturday vowed to provide emergency support for victims.
“The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking,” he said in a statement. “We will do everything we can to help. We will be there as long as it takes.”
The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork reported destruction as the tornado swept northeast at 113 kph (70 mph) without weakening, racing towards Alabama through towns, including Winona and Amory, into the night.
Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN that his town was essentially wiped out.
“My city is gone. But we are resilient and we are going to come back strong,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi said that the town of Rolling Fork, about half an hour southwest of Silver City, “really took a direct hit”.
“These are rural towns in the Mississippi Delta, a good proportion of mobile homes, a good proportion of people living below the poverty line, enormous devastation.
“When these extreme weather events happen in the evening, people often don’t hear the warnings, they’re asleep, and therefore it could cause many more fatalities,” he said.
“People are still trapped within their homes with search and rescue operations underway.”
The National Weather Service issued an alert Friday night as the storm was hitting that didn’t mince words: “To protect your life, TAKE COVER NOW!”
“You are in a life-threatening situation,” it warned. “Flying debris may be deadly to those caught without shelter. Mobile homes will be destroyed. Considerable damage to homes, businesses, and vehicles is likely and complete destruction is possible.”
TV footage showed homes levelled and debris strewn across roads as emergency services attempted to get to those who needed help.
“As far as official damage numbers, we’re not going to have that until morning, daylight time,” said MEMA’s Malary White.
“Our main priority right now, especially for the local first responders, it’s life safety and accounting for the people and making sure they are safe,” she told CBS News affiliate WJTV.
The Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital on the west side of Rolling Fork was damaged, WAPT reported.
The Sharkey County Sheriff’s Office in Rolling Fork reported gas leaks and people trapped in piles of rubble, according to the Vicksburg News. Some law enforcement units were unaccounted for in Sharkey, according to the the newspaper.
According to poweroutage.us, 40,000 customers were without power in Tennessee; 15,000 customers were left without power in Mississippi; and 20,000 were without power in Alabama.
Rolling Fork and the surrounding area has wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. More than a half-dozen shelters were opened in the state by emergency officials.
This was a supercell, the nasty type of storm that brews the deadliest tornado and most damaging hail in the United States, said University of Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Walker Ashley. What’s more, this was a nighttime one which is “the worst kind,” he said.
Meteorologists saw a big tornado risk coming for the general region, not the specific area, as much as a week in advance, said Ashley, who was discussing it with his colleagues as early as March 17. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center put out a long-range alert for the area on March 19, he said.
Tornado warnings had been issued in various counties throughout the state on Friday, but by 2:48am, (07:48 GMT) on Saturday, the National Weather Service for Jackson said the “tornado watch has expired across our forecast area”.
“Additional showers and thunderstorms are expected across our area,” it said on Twitter, adding that they were “not expected to become severe”.
In January, at least seven people were killed in Alabama and Georgia after a massive storm system whipping up severe winds and spawning tornadoes hit some southern states in the United States.
Last month, a series of tornadoes lashed the central US, leaving a trail of wreckage and injuries as winter storms cause extreme weather around the country.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES