‘Extremely dangerous’ tornadoes cause widespread damage as Joe Biden declares emergency
At least two “large and extremely dangerous” tornadoes barrelled through Georgia on Sunday, causing widespread damage a day after 26 people were killed by storms in Mississippi.
One of the new tornadoes struck south of La Grange, the National Weather Service in Atlanta said, bringing the threat of hail the size of tennis balls and winds of up to 70mph.
“Many buildings damaged, people trapped,” the Georgia Mutual Aid Group said.
In nearby West Point, roads, including Interstate Highway 85, were blocked by debris.
“If you do not have to get on the roads this morning, please do not travel,” the aid group said.
Two tigers escaped their enclosures at a Georgia wildlife park but were later found, while residents of Georgia’s Macon were urged to “take cover now”.
“You are in a life-threatening situation,” the weather service warned residents in the path of both funnel clouds.
More than 20 million people living across the southern United States were at risk from further storms after Mississippi was ravaged by tornadoes late on Friday.
While the scale of damage and possible casualties was unclear, the weather service warned that flying debris could be deadly for those caught without shelter, and there is a likelihood homes, businesses and vehicles “will be destroyed”.
On Sunday President Joe Biden declared an emergency in Mississippi and ordered the release of a federal aid package to support local recovery efforts as he described the images emerging from the worst-hit areas as “heartbreaking”.
The aid package includes grants for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.
“We will do everything we can to help. We will be there as long as it takes,” the president said.
Search-and-recovery crews resumed the daunting task of digging through the debris of flattened and battered homes and offices.
But even with recovery just starting, the National Weather Service warned of a risk of more severe weather – including high winds, large hailstones and possible tornadoes – in eastern Louisiana, south-central Mississippi and south-central Alabama.
The tornado ripped through Mississippi late on Friday, killing at least 25 people, with one further death in Alabama as a series of twisters spread carnage across the region. In Mississippi, the tornado tore off roofs from homes, smashed cars and flattened entire neighbourhoods as it hit the ground for more than an hour and traversed at least 170 miles, a distance that meteorologists described as extremely rare.
As of Sunday, 4,800 customers were without power in Mississippi, and nearly 11,000 homes and businesses remained in the dark in neighbouring Alabama.
The city of Rolling Fork – where an entire row of houses was demolished – found itself at the centre of the devastation.
“My city is gone,” Eldridge Walker, Rolling Fork mayor, told CNN. “Devastation – as I look from left to right, that’s all I see.
“A lot of families are hurting. This community is in a situation that we never expected.
“Houses that are torn up can be replaced but we can’t replace a life.”
Storm-chaser Aaron Rigsby said he arrived in Rolling Fork right after the storm hit, in the pouring rain and with “lightning still all around”.
“When I got there, it was just a constant cry of voices screaming for help from people that were trapped,” he said.
Rolling Fork is reputed to be the home of the teddy bear, which was created, so the story goes, after former president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt refused to kill a captured bear on a hunting trip here.
Each year, the town commemorates the incident by installing a 12-foot bear statue, lovingly carved from wood. The monuments are now scattered across the town, and its annual bear festival in October thrown into doubt.
This year’s bear was slated to stand outside Chuck’s Dairy Bar, which was destroyed on Friday night.
“It’s really unimaginable and hard,” said festival director Meg Cooper. “I hope, come October, everyone’s asking ‘Where’s the bear going?’”