Devastating Storms Strike Mississippi and the South
An EF4 tornado in late March touched down in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, destroying homes and toppling the city’s water tower (NOAA, Wikimedia Commons).
On March 24, an unusually powerful tornado struck western Mississippi, killing 26 people and shocking meteorologists. That weekend, several of the surrounding states experienced similar weather events. A total of 20 tornadoes struck the southern U.S. over the next few days, leaving widespread destruction in their wake.
Tornadoes in Rolling Fork
Around 8:00 p.m. on March 24, a tornado touched down on the Mississippi-Louisiana border. It then moved east through Rolling Fork, traveling nearly 60 miles and lasting more than an hour. A level four on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale, the second-highest rating possible, the nearly 170 miles per hour winds were strong enough to snap trees, tear apart houses, and topple the town’s water tower. Storm chasers described it as a “wedge tornado,” meaning its width appears larger than its length, allowing it to be more destructive over a larger area. The Rolling Fork tornado had a width of about three-quarters of a mile and the power to fling debris 30,000 feet into the air.
The tornado struck Rolling Fork at night while most residents were asleep. Nighttime tornadoes can be twice as deadly as those that occur during the day, especially in this case because the National Weather Service (NWS) was only able to issue a warning 20 minutes prior. For many, the raging winds were the only warning they received before the tornado struck. Stephanie Cox, a storm chaser based in Oklahoma, commented that she had “never seen [a tornado] that violent or heard one just make that roar sound - that sounds like a train horn coming right at you.”
The tornado destroyed roughly 300 homes and businesses in Rolling Fork. In a city where one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line and many residents rely on agriculture, weather events like this can be disastrous. Residents left alive were considered among the lucky. Still, Mayor Eldridge Walker remains optimistic, telling CNN, “My city is gone, but we’re resilient, and we’re going to come back.”
Other Tornadoes and Storms in the Area
Shortly after the tornado struck Rolling Fork, another tornado hit Black Hawk, Mississippi, a city 56 miles northeast of Rolling Fork. An EF3 tornado with maximum winds of 150 miles per hour, it made a 29-mile path of destruction east through Winona before ending near Kilmichael. One resident, Angel Straeter, said, “We’ve lived here since August 1999, and we have never had anything like this happen. Tornadoes don’t hit Black Hawk.”
However, this tornado in Black Hawk was not alone. Teams from the NWS have confirmed a total of 14 tornadoes in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Two tornadoes were reported in Arkansas, one in the city of Wynne, where it killed four people. Six more tornadoes hit West Tennessee, one rated an EF3, killing one person and causing significant damage in Covington and Tipton County. Finally, six tornadoes touched down in north Mississippi, including an EF2 tornado with peak winds of 130 miles per hour.
The storms also caused heavy rain—7 to 10 inches on the evening of March 26 in Georgia and Alabama—creating the potential for flash floods. The NWS also announced that the area could have scattered hail the size of tennis balls and isolated gusts of wind up to 70 miles per hour. On Sunday morning, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency because of the “severe storms and tornadoes” that struck the state.
Over the weekend, several other areas affected by the storms declared states of emergency, and President Joe Biden ordered federal assistance. The aid would cover most of the state’s emergency measures for the next 30 days, including overtime pay for first responders and debris cleanup. Biden also visited several Mississippi cities hit by the tornadoes, acknowledging that the road to recovery would be long and hard. “To those impacted by these devastating storms, and to the first responders and emergency personnel working to help their fellow Americans, we will do everything we can to help,” he said, “We will be there as long as it takes. We will work together to deliver the support you need to recover.” He also praised Republican Governor Tate Reeves and the area’s longtime Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson for taking action quickly.
Reeves visited Silver City and Winona on Saturday to meet affected residents. “We’re going to fight like hell to make sure that we get as many resources to this area as possible,” he said. In an update on Twitter, he described the situation as a “tragedy,” writing, “We are blessed with brave, capable responders and loving neighbors. Please continue to pray.”
Three emergency shelters have already been set up, including a National Guard Armory in Rolling Fork and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shelters. Recently, Montgomery and Panola joined the growing list of cities open to apply for FEMA Individual Assistance, which includes temporary housing assistance, essential home repairs, and other uninsured disaster-related needs.
In the new normal of global warming, experts predict there will be many more massive storms like these in the future. A study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society stated that nationwide, there would be a 6.6 percent increase in tornado and hail-spanning supercell storms. It is also predicted that there will be a 25.8 percent jump in the area and time the strongest storms will strike. By 2100 it is estimated that there will be a supercell storm every year.
The effects of these storms will be devastating in states like Mississippi, where a large portion of the population is below the poverty line. To prepare, the government will have to allocate significant amounts of money and resources to enact more comprehensive responsive measures and ensure the safety and sustainability of cities.
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