(OSV News) — No less than 23 people have been killed after at least one powerful tornado tore through rural Mississippi on the night of March 24, injuring dozens and causing widespread destruction. Emergency services were deployed to rescue victims of the destruction. The following morning, The New York Times reported that at least one person died in Alabama as a result of the severe storm system.
Early March 25, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said on Twitter that they could confirm 23 deaths, and that four people were missing and dozens were injured. “Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to change,” it added.
“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.
“At this time, 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. The bishop called on the faithful to pray for the repose of those lives lost by the tornado’s devastation.
“We pray for those who are desperately trying to reach loved ones and unable to reach them, as well as those still seeking safety who are missing as a result of the storms,” Bishop Kopacz continued.
The National Weather Service confirmed tornado damage about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of Jackson, Mississippi, with most of the destruction reported in Silver City and Rolling Fork, a rural town of about 1,800 people.
“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. According to Vicksburg News, the Sharkey County Sheriff’s Office in Rolling Fork reported gas leaks and people trapped in piles of rubble.
WAPT16, a television station in Jackson, Mississippi, said that the tornado — which was reported to be at least a mile wide — formed near Rolling Fork and continued for miles through Mississippi and into Alabama. Overnight, the tornado swept northeast at 70 mph heading toward Alabama through towns, including Amory and Winona.
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.”
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said that state search-and-rescue resources were being sent to Sharkey County, and areas affected by the tornado. It continued to survey the damage Saturday morning.
“We have numerous local and state search and rescue teams that continue to work this morning,” the agency said in a Tweet.
On March 25, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said the FEMA Region IV IMAT team was on the way to the state to assist as well. “We cannot say thank you enough to the amount of people helping our state right now. Mississippi is resilient and we will get through this,” the agency said in a tweet.
A local TV station reported a crisis shelter has 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.
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 his statement.
“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.”