HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) – Four people were killed, roofs were ripped from homes and churches, and trees were torn from the earth early Saturday when a tornado hitting in the dark of night ripped through a region in southern Mississippi, officials said.
Four people died after the twister blew through the city and surrounding area, said Forrest County Coroner Butch Benedict. The twister was part of a wall of stormy weather traveling across the region, bringing with it rain and unstable conditions.
Authorities have not yet released the names of the four people who died. But at least one family had already gotten the horrific news. Monica McCarty said her father died in the same trailer park where she and her boyfriend live and her son was apparently crushed to death while in bed at her mother’s house where he lived.
Standing amid the carnage the tornado had wrought, McCarty wept as her boyfriend, Tackeem Molley, comforted her.
“They couldn’t get him out of the house. They said he was laying in the bed,” McCarty said of her son.
Molley said he and McCarty were in a trailer when the storm hit. Molley, whose bare foot was bandaged, said he climbed out through a hole in what had either been the trailer’s roof or wall.
“I had a little hole I could squeeze out of,” he said.
In the surrounding neighborhood, power company trucks were running up and down the streets. A city backhoe was plowing debris from the road. Dozens of homes were damaged.
Sheet metal was strewn everywhere. Trees turned into spindly sticks were lying across power lines, and the roar of chain saws could be heard in the background. At least three nearby churches had sustained some type of damage.
Mayor Johnny DuPree has signed an emergency declaration for the city, which reported “significant injuries” and structural damage.
The search for the dead and injured continued as the sun rose. More than 40 firefighters from across Mississippi had gathered outside Hattiesburg police headquarters to search. Equipped with dogs and all-terrain vehicles, they were planning on doing a grid search from police headquarters to nearby William Carey University in one of the most heavily damaged areas.
On Bernice Avenue south of downtown Hattiesburg, Edna Smith was surveying what was left of the tan brick house she’d lived in since 2005.
Her parrots had been spared but the tornado ripped off most of her roof, dumping it in the backyard and alley behind her house. Her neighbor’s porch roof blew into her carport, slamming her car into a brick wall.
“It woke me up and half the roof was gone,” said Smith, who is already the survivor of one natural disaster. She moved to Hattiesburg after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina displaced her from her suburban New Orleans home.
Rain cascaded down onto the roofless house turning wallboard into mud and soaking upholstered furniture.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I’m going to try to get some help,” she said.
Hours after the tornado, authorities were still concerned about downed power lines and possible gas leaks and were encouraging people to stay home, said Hattiesburg police Lt. Allen Murray.
Greg Flynn of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said “massive damage” was reported across a three-county area that was struck by a tornado at around 4 a.m.
Thousands of customers in southern Mississippi were without power. The three major power companies in the area reported nearly 13,000 customers in the dark. The bulk of those were in Forrest County where the tornado struck early morning.
A college in one of the most heavily affected areas said Saturday it was closing down and students being evacuated.
William Carey University, a Christian university with a campus in Hattiesburg, said on Twitter that the campus is closed until further notice. Its Tradition campus near the coast is still open.
Students were being escorted from the Hattiesburg campus and arrangements are being made for students who can’t go home.
The university said some students had minor injuries, and some dorms were damaged.
Photos posted on the university’s Twitter feed showed vehicles in a parking lot flipped over and parts of a brick building ripped down.
The three counties affected are Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties. Flynn said the tornado touched down in Lamar, plowed through Forrest and then struck Perry before dissipating.
The National Weather Service said three to five inches of rain have already fallen, raising the risk of flooding. More rain – one to two inches – is possible.
The front porch and a car port blew off of Harold Morgan’s house, damaging multiple vehicles that belonged to his family members. Morgan, a self-employed building contractor, said he would have to take off work to tend to his family’s needs and board up windows.
But the damage paled next to the loss of life.
“What hit me the most is that other people lost their lives. We can get a new roof. We can get new cars,” he said.
Rebecca Santana reported from New Orleans.