ROLLING FORK, Miss. – As devastated communities begin to pick up the pieces from deadly tornadoes that swept across Mississippi Friday night, storm survey teams with the National Weather Service set out to document the strength of the storms.
What they found was beyond sheer destruction.
"I’ve been in the National Weather Service now for 28 years," NWS Jackson Meteorologist Bill Parker told FOX Weather on Saturday. "And this is probably the worst tornado damage assessment that I’ve ever seen. This is very catastrophic."
The tornado touched down just after a supercell thunderstorm crossed the Mississippi River from Louisiana into Mississippi and left a trail of damage for dozens of miles. Homes were left shattered, cars and trucks were found tossed like toys into piles and trees were stripped of their bark. The storms have been blamed for the deaths of at least 22 people across the South, but most of the fatalities happened in Mississippi.
Initially, the death toll in Mississippi was believed to be 25, but has since been lowered.
"During a disaster, numbers are likely to change," the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) said. "Now that search and rescue efforts have been demobilized, MEMA can confirm a total of 21 storm-related fatalities."
Several storm survey teams from the region's National Weather Service offices have fanned out across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee this weekend, tasked with estimating the tornado's peak wind speeds, width and length of path from the scope of the damage, eventually assigning storms a rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.
Parker is on the team surveying the widespread destruction in Rolling Fork and was asked if he had any preliminary ideas on what the tornado could eventually rate.
"Right now, we know it’s definitely an (EF-3) from what I can see with trees being debarked and conventional houses with walls totally demolished," Parker said. "Slabs are not completely swept, but almost swept."
Parker said for the most destructive tornadoes that could reach the highest ends of the rating scale, a specialized survey team will be brought in over the coming days to get a more detailed look at the damage and see if the tornado warrants a rare EF-4 or even rarer EF-5 rating. On Saturday evening, officials said the tornado had received a preliminary rating of EF-4.
"The (Rolling Fork tornado) definitely gets up into that (EF-4) range, but we can’t say just fully, fully say if it’ll be an (EF-5) or not," Parker said. "We'll probably have to bring out some of our members of the quality rating team to see if this is actually an (EF-5) or not."
An EF-5 rating would be historic. The last EF-5 tornado happened nearly 10 years ago in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. Several EF-5 tornadoes struck during the spring of 2011, including one that hit Smithville, Mississippi, which may have also gotten hit by a tornado during Friday's outbreak.
‘Get people to safe places’
Parker said tornadoes are a part of life in the Deep South and reminded residents severe weather season really stretches from November through May.
"This was a very long-track tornado that moved across our area, and the season is not over yet," Parker said. "We got to continue to be prepared – preach safety, preach preparedness and get people to safe places."
He's especially concerned about those who live in mobile homes.
"Weak tornadoes can do devastating damage to mobile homes and people that live in mobile homes, so we need a lot more safe rooms out there and community shelters that people can get to."
The National Weather Service said some survey reports will be released by late Saturday, but places with significant damage may take a few days. Parker said many roads and neighborhoods remain impassable, hindering their access to investigate storm damage.