LOUISVILLE, Miss. — Ilene Estes sorted through the pile of debris Tuesday that hours earlier had been her home. She wiped tears from her eyes as she tried to understand what had happened overnight when a powerful tornado roared through, killing at least 12 Mississippi residents and injuring dozens more.
“This just isn’t the kind of thing we’ve ever experienced,” she said. “We have had storms in the rural areas around us, so we know what they can do, but I never could have imagined it would happen to us.”
At least 35 people have died in the South and Midwest this week from an outbreak of severe weather that spawned tornadoes, flooded streets, and caused widespread damage.
The violent storm system struck parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee overnight, leaving at least 15 dead in those states. Officials there were still in the earliest stages of the grim task of digging through the debris looking for survivors. At least 15 people were killed in Arkansas, with deaths also reported in Iowa and Oklahoma.
Brett Carr, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday that at least 12 people had died in his state, while the University of Mississippi Medical Center said it had sent a mobile hospital to Louisville, Miss., where the Winston Medical Center was especially hard hit. At least eight of the deaths were in Winston County, which is about 95 miles south of Tupelo.
In Alabama, Brian Corbett, a spokesman for the state’s emergency management agency, said the state authorities had confirmed three deaths — two in Limestone County and one in Tuscaloosa County — but were seeing reports of additional fatalities. The University of Alabama said one of the dead was a student, John Servati, who was a member of its swim team.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said two people had died in Lincoln County, along the state’s border with Alabama. And since Sunday, officials have also confirmed deaths in Iowa and Oklahoma.
On Monday night, Estes’s daughter, Cherie Bell of Columbus, Miss., had been watching a weather report when she heard her mother was in the path of a massive wedge tornado. “I called and called, and she finally picked up after the third call,” Bell said.
Estes and her husband do not own a storm cellar, so the couple drove about a mile to the Winston County courthouse, which is a designated storm shelter. The home they left just minutes before was leveled to its concrete slab and a couple walls.
“I am just so thankful that Cherie called us and we were able to get out of harm’s way,” Estes said. “If we hadn’t left, I’m not sure we would have made it.”
As emergency workers across the South and Midwest turned from search-and-rescue efforts to cleanup, the South braced for a third round of potentially deadly weather.
Forecasters predicted that Tuesday could bring more violent weather and was expected to develop across Alabama and Georgia late in the day. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center has forecast a risk of severe weather from the Great Lakes southward to the central and eastern Gulf Coast and eastward to the Carolinas and Virginia. The greatest risk for potentially damaging storms was in eastern Mississippi to central Alabama, several tornadoes, large hail, flash flooding, and straight line damaging winds are likely.
Corbett, of Alabama, said that as officials were working to respond to Monday night’s storms, they were bracing for the threat of more violent weather.
“We do have another system potentially moving in later today,” he said. “You can’t stop preparing. You can’t stop planning.”
After years of living with the threat of storms, Billy and Zenita Allen of Louisville, Miss., had learned to keep an eye on the weather.
Zenita Allen, 65, was in her bedroom Monday when she noticed the strong wind and rain had stopped. Then she heard a low, rumbling noise.
“I knew right away that it was a tornado, so I ran into the kitchen to turn off some food that was cooking on the stove,” she said. “A tree fell, broke through the window, and landed just feet from where I was standing, so I knew I needed to take cover.”
Billy Allen, 59, had been in a building just behind the house.
With no basement, Zenita Allen crouched under the kitchen’s bar, and Billy Allen grabbed the dog and took shelter in a bathroom. Two of the walls in the bedroom that Zenita Allen had left collapsed during the storm, while Billy Allen had to hold up one wall to keep it from falling on him.
“We were just fortunate to have gotten to safer places quickly,” Zenita Allen said. “We didn’t have a basement to crawl to, and we just happened to stay safe.”
“Now that we have gone through something like this,” she said, “we’ll know what could happen, and I know we’ll take certain things into consideration like a storm cellar.”