YAZOO CITY, Miss. — Rescuers spread out Sunday to find anyone who might be left behind in the rural Mississippi countryside hit hard by a tornado that killed at least 10 people a day earlier, while residents returned to demolished homes to salvage what they could and bulldoze the rubble.
Two deaths in Alabama have been blamed on storms there.
About 40 National Guard soldiers patrolled the devastated Yazoo City, some in Humvees and others in a Blackhawk helicopter. Dozens of volunteer state troopers and other law enforcement officers also came from far-flung parts of the state to help.
The high winds on Saturday ripped roofs off buildings in Yazoo County, a county of about 28,000 people known for blues, catfish and cotton where Gov. Haley Barbour grew up. He described “utter obliteration” among the picturesque hills rising from the flat Mississippi Delta.
“This tornado was enormous,” Barbour told The Associated Press as searchers resumed their work.
He said there are about 100 homes in Yazoo County and another 38 in Choctaw County that are uninhabitable. State emergency officials are still trying to determine how many people have been left homeless after Saturday’s storm, he said. It’s unlikely the final tally of damage and other figures will be done before Tuesday.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said Sunday that at least three dozen people were hurt and nearly 200 homes damaged in Attala, Holmes, Monroe and Warren Counties.
Gov. Barbour estimated at least 100 houses in Yazoo County alone had severe damage but said his estimate could rise later.
In Alabama, authorities attributed two deaths to severe weather. National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Rose said a 50-year-old woman was killed when she slipped and hit her head as she headed to a storm shelter Saturday. Police said a 32-year-old man was killed when the car he was riding in struck a tree that had blown down across a road. More than 30 other injuries were reported in the state, none serious.
On Sunday, many people were focused on cleanup, with the buzz of chainsaws and tractors rumbling across the region. The scent of splintered pine trees permeated hard-hit Choctaw County as people tried to salvage what they could from mobile homes torn from their blocks. Utility workers in cherry-pickers hovered over police officers directing traffic on a two-lane highway busy with relief workers and volunteers arriving to help.
About 20 student volunteers from the National Association for the Prevention of Starvation drove through the night from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, to Yazoo City to help.
One student, 22-year-old Brittany Wimberly of San Antonio, Texas, said some in the group had recently returned from doing earthquake recovery work in Haiti.
“We’re helping where we can, whether it’s a hug or removing debris,” she said.
Not far away, about three dozen members of Hillcrest Baptist Church prayed among warped metal and broken boards, all that remained of their church building. They dug through the rubble to pull out a few chairs and other items, and one managed to find a hymnal — opened to the song, “Till the Storm Passes By.”
Dale Thrasher, 60, the only church member in the building when the tornado hit, told the congregation he climbed under the communion table and prayed to God for protection.
“The whole building caved in,” he said. “But me and that table were still there.”
Meteorologists said it was too soon to tell whether a single long-lasting tornado — or multiple shorter ones — carved the path of destruction from northeastern Louisiana to east-central Mississippi. Hundreds were still without power Sunday, and officials said some may be without power until Tuesday or even Wednesday.
The same storm front spawned heavy thunderstorms that raked across the Southeast, snapping trees, damaging rooftops and scattering hail.
There were many stories of unlikely survival.
In pine-forest filled Choctaw County, six people rode out the storm inside Sullivan’s Crossroads Grocery and escaped with only cuts and bruises, said owner Ron Sullivan. The shop’s wooden roof was torn off, its cinderblock walls reduced to heaps of stone.
Sullivan said he was on the phone with a National Weather Service meteorologist Saturday who wanted to know what the conditions were. Sullivan told him: “Something’s happening, and it’s happening now.”
Then the phone went dead. And Sullivan was off his feet.
“I was levitated and flew 15 feet (4.5 metres) over there to the back wall,” Sullivan said. “The only reason I wasn’t killed was the wall was still there. After I hit it, it collapsed.”
Sullivan’s wife had hidden behind a chest freezer — which ultimately saved her life. A large steel storage tank was uprooted by the twister and then rolled into the store. It came to rest against the freezer — if it hadn’t been there to stop the tank, it would have crushed his wife, Sullivan said.
Meanwhile Sunday, pitcher Roy Oswalt of major league baseball’s Houston Astros was driving a bucket loader, trying to knock down a damaged tree near his parents’ home in Choctaw County. His black Cadillac Escalade was parked outside what remained of his parents’ now-decimated home across the street from Sullivan’s store.
His father, Billy Oswalt, had been out hunting when the storm hit. The pitcher’s mother, Jean, hunkered down in the house with the family’s dog.
“She got our little dog and covered up and she’s OK,” Billy Oswalt said.
Tornadoes also were reported in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama, and the severe weather continued to track northeastward early Sunday as gusty winds also downed trees crossing northwest Georgia.
The severe weather began in Louisiana when a tornado destroyed 12 homes and warehouses at Complex Chemical Co., which makes antifreeze and other automotive fluids.
The storm system moved east, with the twister hitting nearby Yazoo County, Mississippi, killing four people. In adjacent Holmes County, another person was killed. A little farther northeast, a tornado hit Choctaw County, where another five victims were reported, including children ages 3 months, 9 and 14.
Associated Press writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Yazoo City, Jack Elliott Jr. in Jackson and Maria Burnham in French Camp contributed to this report.