At least 21 dead as tornadoes rip through US South

·4 min read

At least 21 people have been killed after a tornado raged through southern US on Friday night, officials have said.

The tornado blew down homes and gutted trees in two Mississippi towns, leaving a trail of damage for more than 100 miles.

Hail the size of golf balls moved through several southern US states and prompted authorities to warn some in its path that they were in a “life-threatening situation”.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado caused damage about 60 miles north-east of Jackson, Mississippi.

The rural towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork reported destruction as the tornado continued sweeping north-east at 70mph without weakening, racing towards Alabama through towns including Winona and Amory.

Sharkey County coroner Angelia Easton told ABC News that 13 people were killed by the tornado in Mississippi. Rolling Fork is located in Sharkey County.

ABC News reported an additional six deaths, including three in Carroll County, two in Monroe County and one in Humphreys County, citing the county coroners and a Mississippi Highway Patrol trooper. The Associated Press was not immediately able to confirm those fatalities.

The National Weather Service issued an alert as the storm was hitting that did not 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.”

Twitter user Stephanie Cox posted a video showing overturned vehicles and blown out trees caused by the storm.

She tweeted: “Absolutely unreal damage in Rolling Fork . What a wild night please keep all these towns in your thoughts!”

Cornel Knight told the Associated Press that he, his wife and their three-year-old daughter were at a relative’s home in Rolling Fork when the tornado struck. He said the sky was dark but “you could see the direction from every transformer that blew”.

He said it was “eerily quiet” as that happened. Mr Knight said he watched from a doorway until the tornado was, he estimated, less than a mile away. Then he told everyone in the house to take cover in a hallway.

He said the tornado struck another relative’s home across a wide corn field from where he was located. A wall in that home collapsed and trapped several people inside.

Rolling Fork mayor Eldridge Walker said he was unable to get out of his damaged home soon after the tornado hit because power lines were down. He said emergency responders were trying to take injured people to hospital. He did not immediately know how many people had been hurt.

A former mayor of Rolling Fork, Fred Miller, told a television station a tornado blew the windows out of the back of his house.

Storm chaser Reed Timmer posted on Twitter that Rolling Fork was in immediate need of emergency personnel and that he was heading with injured residents of the town to a hospital in Vicksburg.

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 newspaper.

Mississippi governor Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post that search and rescue teams were active and that officials were sending more ambulances and emergency assets to those affected.

“Many in the MS Delta need your prayer and God’s protection tonight,” the post said. “Watch weather reports and stay cautious through the night, Mississippi!”

This was a supercell, the type of storms that brew the deadliest tornado and most damaging hail in the United States, said University of Northern Illinois meteorology professor Walker Ashley.

Additional reporting from AP