ROLLING FORK, Miss. – It’s been less than 48 hours since violent and deadly tornadoes swept across Mississippi, scattering the remains of destroyed homes and businesses across the landscape. As survivors start to pick up the pieces and navigate the long recovery process, survival stories are beginning to emerge.
One of the hardest-hit towns was the western Mississippi community of Rolling Fork, which is where the horrifying night began. Many of the state’s 21 fatalities were reported in the town, which has a population of just under 2,000 people.
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."
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What they found was catastrophic.
"I’ve been with 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 catastrophic."
Radar analysis by FOX Weather showed that one tornado was on the ground for at least 53 miles from the first debris detection near Rolling Fork around 8 p.m. CDT until just after 9 p.m. CDT northwest of Tchula.
But by 10 p.m. CDT, the tornado has been on the ground for about 60 miles. Radar scans estimated debris was tossed 20,000 feet into the air over a three-quarter-mile-wide swirl that tore across the state at 65 mph.
‘All Hell broke loose’
FOX Weather Correspondent Robert Ray is on the ground in Rolling Fork and has seen the twisted steel, uprooted trees, crumbled cars and destroyed homes and businesses firsthand and described the scene as "purely catastrophic."
Ray spoke with one victim who said she survived by seeking shelter in her bathtub.
"We made it to the tub just in time," Ramona Brock told Ray. "By the time we got into the tub, it was right on top of us."
She told Ray that the tornado destroying everything around her felt like a lifetime, but in reality, it was only a minute or two. And nothing was left when she emerged from the debris of her destroyed home.
"Darkness and debris," she said. "Once I was able to, I guess, adjust my sight, I guess is what I’m trying to say. Just a lot of stuff everywhere."
"Everything you work for is gone," she added. "But, I do have my life."
Drone video reveals devastation
Storm chasers were some of the first people on the scene after tornadoes ripped through the towns. Some said they became first responders, rescuing people from the rubble.
Aaron Rigsby, of Live Storms Media, said he found people trapped amid significant damage in Rolling Fork.
"There were multiple cases where I was pulling debris up off of people, unburying them from rubble where their house had collapsed on them," Rigsby told FOX Weather. "One lady tried to take cover, and she was with a walker when I found her, and she had been knocked over in her living room with a leg injury, but we were able to unbury her from that debris and get a medic over there and get her medical attention."
Aerial video from chasers showed block after block of destruction in towns along the path of Friday night’s storms – splintered buildings, debarked trees and vehicles that were tossed into piles like toys.
President Biden approves disaster declaration
Early Sunday morning, Pres. Joe Biden approved Mississippi’s disaster declaration, which will now make federal funding available to the victims of the deadly tornadoes in Carrol, Humphreys, Monroe and Sharkey counties.
That federal funding can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help people and business owners recover from the effects of the storms.
Previously, Biden had expressed his condolences to the victims of the tornado outbreak and pledged "full federal support" for the recovery.
"The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking," Biden said in a statement on Saturday. "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 their homes and businesses."
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas are on the ground in the affected communities and will provide updates on the tornadoes and storm response on Sunday afternoon.