by Maria-Pia Negro Chin, Gina Christian, Megan Marley
(OSV News) — Powerful tornadoes tore through rural Mississippi the night of Friday, March 24, killing or injuring dozens and causing widespread destruction.
By Saturday night, an update from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) reported the death toll had risen to 25 and dozens of others were injured; four persons reported missing are accounted for. Multiple state agencies and partners have been working together to help in response and recovery efforts. News reports said that search and recovery crews continue to dig through destroyed homes and buildings on Sunday.
“The loss will be felt in these towns forever,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said in a Twitter post on Saturday. “Please pray for God’s hand to be over all who lost family and friends.”
Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, extended his prayers and encouraged Catholics to support all communities affected by this tragic event. “We join in prayer for all those affected by the storms that crossed our state,” he said in a statement posted on the diocesan website March 25.
During his Angelus, Pope Francis also prayed for the victims of the deadly weather and the people recovering from the loss of life and devastating destruction, according to Vatican News.
“We pray also for the victims of the terrible tornado that struck Mississippi in the United States,” the pope said at the end of his Angelus prayer on March 26.
Early Sunday morning, President Joe Biden ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas affected, due to the major disaster in Mississippi.
According to the White House disaster declaration, funding would be available to aid people in the counties of Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe, and Sharkey, and it can include grants for temporary houses and home repairs, as well as loans to cover uninsured property losses.
The National Weather Service confirmed tornado damage about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Jackson, Mississippi, with a lot of the destruction reported in Silver City and Rolling Fork, a rural town of more than 1,800 people.
Processing information from damage surveys could take days to complete, but the National Weather Service noted the Rolling Fork/Silver City tornado has a preliminary EF-4 rating, which estimates wind speeds to have been 166-200 mph. Preliminary statistics from the National Weather Service said that tornado traveled approximately 59 miles over the course of an hour and 10 minutes. The Blackhawk/Winona tornado now has a preliminary EF-3 rating, with severe wind speeds in the 136-165 mph range.
“My city is gone. But we are resilient,” Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker said on CNN. Video and photos of the area showed houses reduced to rubble. On Twitter, Governor Reeves shared photos of relief efforts underway in Rolling Fork, Silver City, Amory and Winona, noting perseverance, unity and even prayer behind the response of responders and volunteers.
In an interview with OSV News, Marvin Edwards, a lay ecclesial minister of Sacred Heart Parish in Winona, shared what it was like to be in the tornado’s path. He said that he and his wife — who live 20 miles away from the parish — were in bed for the night when the tornado struck.
“This is the first time a tornado hit us directly. My emergency tornado watch went off on my cell phone. That’s not unusual, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention. All of a sudden, I heard this loud noise as my wife and I were laying in bed. We jumped up and the roof went away. We didn’t have time [to shelter]; all of a sudden it (the tornado) was there,” he told OSV News.
Saying it all happened quickly, Edwards said they were not injured and only saw the damage once it was morning. “The tornado had a mile-wide path, and it picked up [strength] as it moved across the lake,” he said. “It took the roof off my house. I’ve got two cars with a big tree sitting across them; both of them are smashed.”
“As far as I know, all of our parishioners [at Sacred Heart] are OK. We don’t have a lot of parishioners; we’re a small mission church,” he said. “My immediate thought was, ‘I got angels protecting me evidently.’ I just thanked him (God). Something was protecting me.”
A local TV station reported a crisis shelter opened in Rolling Forks to provide a medical station, as well as cots, toiletries, and water. The state’s emergency management agency said shelters have also been opened in Belzoni and Amory to provide shelter to those affected, which includes hundreds of people who lost their homes.
On March 25, Gov. Reeves issued a State of Emergency in all counties affected by the tornado and severe storms that occurred across Mississippi. He called on agencies to set forth the emergency responsibilities delineated in Mississippi’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.
“We give thanks and pray for first responders, who are working tirelessly in affected communities trying to reach those missing, restore power and assist those surviving,” Bishop Kopacz said in a statement on the Diocese of Jackson website.
“I encourage all to continue to pray and find ways to support all affected communities,” he added. “We will be reaching out through our Catholic Charities Disaster Response team to assist in recovery efforts.”
The National Weather Service of Huntsville, Alabama, also confirmed four tornadoes touched down in their state overnight March 24-25, all of which were EF-1 or EF-2 strength. The New York Times reported Saturday morning that at least one person died in Alabama as a result of the severe storm system.
In a Saturday afternoon email, Donald Carson, the Diocese of Birmingham’s communications director, noted Alabama did not experience similar levels of lives lost or destruction as the neighboring state.
“We will pray for all whose lives were lost in Mississippi and those who love them and all affected by the storms,” he said.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency’s Twitter and Facebook page, @MSEMA, also warned Mississippians that a large portion of the state has the potential for more severe storms Sunday evening and “tornadoes cannot be ruled out.”