ROLLING FORK, Miss. — An ominous wedge appeared in the night sky over one of the poorest regions of the American South late Friday. When it touched down, it nearly obliterated the small Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork in one of numerous scenes of destruction and heartbreak across swaths of Mississippi and Alabama. At least 26 people were killed, dozens more were injured, and homes and businesses were smashed to pieces.
In Rolling Fork, a town of about 2,000 people near Mississippi’s western border, the extent of what was lost began to come into view at daybreak.
The tornado had shredded most everything, plucking trees that had stood for decades, roots and all, and dropping them onto homes and vehicles. A fire station was just open air. Houses had rooms shorn off.
In other parts of town, the force of the storm was so powerful that it rendered homes and businesses into piles of debris, unrecognizable to residents who had lived there for decades. Roads were a maze of downed utility lines, tree limbs, strips of metal, and lines of trucks and vehicles, as outsiders — law enforcement agencies, volunteers and others — crowded in.
Mike Barlow, who lives in Rolling Fork, was watching the local weather channel Friday evening when a meteorologist warned viewers to take shelter immediately. The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado was moving toward the town at 8:05 p.m.
“I thought, ‘This is not good,’” Barlow said. He had just enough time to put on pants and boots and to tell his wife, Kathy, to get off the phone and grab her purse before the tornado destroyed their home.
“It roared, and the next thing you knew, the roof left,” he said Saturday as he loaded what he could salvage into the back of his pickup truck. As he scanned his neighborhood, now just as level as the Delta’s flat farmland, Barlow said, “It was the worst thing I have ever been through.”
As the violent weather system approached the small city of Amory, near the Alabama border, Matt Laubhan, a TV news meteorologist, broke momentarily from his live analysis of what the radar was showing. “Oh, man,” he said, lowering his right elbow onto a desk, his hand on his lips. “Dear Jesus, please help them.”
As residents assessed the losses, President Joe Biden said in a statement that he would ensure federal support for the region, pledging that “we will be there as long as it takes.” Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is expected to travel to Mississippi on Sunday.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, who toured neighborhoods in Rolling Fork, Silver City and Winona on Saturday and requested an expedited disaster declaration for the region, said, “We’re going to fight like hell to make sure that we get as many resources to this area as possible.”
Meteorologists were still working to determine the size of the storms and whether “it was just one big long tornado that caused all of the damage, or if it lifted” and then dropped another one, said Janae Elkins, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Patients from Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital, which serves Rolling Fork and other rural Delta communities, had been transferred to other hospitals in the area, as neighboring counties sent ambulances and support staff to help.
Aaron Rigsby, a videographer and storm chaser who filmed the tornado, said in an interview that he had watched it develop from a “small cone” into a “massive wedge.”
After the tornado hit Rolling Fork, Rigsby said, he went door to door through the town, rescuing people who were trapped in their vehicles or in destroyed homes, including a woman who had been buried by rubble. He added that it had taken ambulances at least 30 minutes to arrive in Rolling Fork because the area is so rural.
Annie Haynes recalled clutching the knob on her closet door as tightly as she could Friday night. Her ears were popping from the pressure. Her house was vibrating. She could feel the wind swirling around her after windows had been shattered and her roof had been punctured, she said.
But in a matter of seconds, the tornado was gone; it had wrecked her house, for which she did not have insurance, and had broken the windows of her car. Yet she knew others had suffered far worse. All she had to do was look across the street.
Her neighbor, a home health worker who lived alone in a mobile home, had been found dead early Saturday, she said, after the storm lifted the home off the ground and slammed it onto a neighbor’s house.
“I don’t even want to look over there,” said Haynes, 64, a preschool teacher. “I cried more for these other people than I cried for myself.”
A storm chaser, Jonny Gabel, recalled pulling a family from the rubble of their flattened house, aided only by the light from a phone flashlight.
“They were all in absolute shock,” said Gabel, tearing up as he added that “the little girl just wanted someone to pick her up. That was all she wanted. She just wanted to be held.”
Soon after, Gabel, 35, said he went to a nearby Dollar General store and began digging through rubble with his bare hands. It was there he found two bodies in the darkness, lying 6 feet apart.
The tornado also caused damage in Silver City, about 30 miles east of Rolling Fork, the weather service office in Jackson, Mississippi, said on Twitter. Officials said the deaths in Mississippi were in Sharkey, Carroll, Humphreys and Monroe counties.
“We are still doing search and recoveries,” said Mark Stiles, the local coroner. “We are trying to cut trees to get into where people are living.”
Rolling Fork was the birthplace of blues singer Muddy Waters and sits between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. Its residents, most of whom are Black, live with the risk of flooding from backwater levees along the Yazoo; one-fifth of the residents are under the federal poverty line.
“The idea of cleaning up, building back, trying to get back in business could be a real problem,” said Fred Miller, a former mayor of Rolling Fork, who has lived in the town for three decades. “And in a small community like ours, you know, somebody may just throw up their hands and say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Those are things that we just have to wait on.”
Set along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, the Delta — a wide, pancake-flat and fertile stretch of bottomlands — is nearly synonymous with poverty, pain and the cruelest burdens of American history. It has also been an unusually fertile contributor to American popular culture, producing musicians such as Waters, B.B. King and Charley Pride, and writers including Walker Percy and Donna Tartt.
But the legacy of slavery and racism in the heart of Mississippi’s old cotton kingdom has persisted well into modern times. The region has experienced population loss beginning in the early 20th century, as Black residents moved north in large numbers to flee the oppression of the Jim Crow era. The mechanization of agriculture also contributed, and today, those who remain often face a lack of opportunities to earn a decent living.
The region, like the state of Mississippi more broadly, has also had trouble maintaining an adequate health care system. The hospital in Rolling Fork, like others in the region, has struggled to stay in business in recent years.
But Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the top executive at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, said the state had also learned many lessons about how to respond to major disasters since it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Woodward said crews from the medical center were able to send “scene triage” groups to the affected areas Friday night, which helped move injured people to hospitals around the state. As of early Saturday, she said, 18 patients had been sent to the medical center in Jackson.
Despite its struggles, the Delta region of Mississippi prides itself on neighborly spirit. On Saturday, hundreds of volunteers had come to Rolling Fork from surrounding counties to offer a hand. Nurses tended to the injured. Farmers used their tractors to move trees, cars and heavy debris. Others brought grills, setting up on the perimeter of the town and cooking hamburgers.
Everyone was asking the same questions: “What can we do? What do you need?”
In Alabama, emergency teams and law enforcement officials were searching through some of the destruction in Morgan County, south of Huntsville. The county sheriff’s office shared photos on Twitter of rescuers helping to free a man trapped in mud after a trailer overturned but later said he did not survive his injuries.
Brandy Davis, the director of the Morgan County Emergency Management, said the man’s death was the only one reported in Alabama so far.
Severe weather season in the South reaches its peak during March, April and May, meteorologists said. Earlier this month, powerful storms swept across the region, leaving at least 12 people dead and hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity, and damaging homes in at least eight states.
A large part of the South could face another round of severe weather Sunday, including large hail, according to the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center.
Nighttime tornadoes are twice as likely to be deadly as their daytime counterparts, experts have said. At night, people are typically asleep and are slower to respond to a warning, and the tornadoes are harder to see coming in the dark.
In Rolling Fork, many residents said what shocked them the most was just how quickly the storm appeared and then left their once-quaint farm town.
Damian Gadison said the only warning was the darkening sky and the howling winds, which forced him into the closet of his mobile home. His home badly damaged, he and his girlfriend were preparing to camp in their car Saturday.
“We need help — I’m talking about help,” Gadison said, sitting in the back seat of his car and straining to convey the gravity of his town’s situation. Tears streamed down his face.
“We didn’t have much,” he said, “but what we had, we held on to.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.