The United States President, Joe Biden, ordered federal aid to the state of Mississippi to support local recovery efforts in areas affected by a devastating tornado, the White House said on Sunday.
The federal funding includes grants for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.
At least 23 people were killed as a devastating tornado ripped across the southern US state of Mississippi, tearing off roofs, smashing cars and flattening entire neighborhoods.
The state’s emergency management agency said Saturday that at least four people were missing and dozens were injured, while tens of thousands of people in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee were without power.
The powerful storm system that generated the tornado, accompanied by thunderstorms and driving rain, cut a long path across the state late Friday, slamming several towns along the way.
In the town of Rolling Fork, home to less than 2,000 people, an entire row of houses and buildings was demolished, leaving only scattered debris. Cars were overturned, fences were ripped up and trees uprooted, television footage showed.
“My city is gone,” Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN.
“Devastation – as I look from left to right, that’s all I see.”
Patricia Perkins, who works at a hardware store in the town, told AFP that “most everything is wiped away.”
Resident Shanta Howard told ABC affiliate WAPT that locals had to help remove the dead from the wreckage of their homes.
“It was like no notice. We didn’t know what was happening,” a tearful Tracy Harden, the owner of Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, told CNN.
Search and rescue operations were also underway in Sharkey and Humphreys counties, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of the state capital Jackson.
The emergency management agency put the latest death toll at 23 but cautioned that it could rise.
“The loss will be felt in these towns forever,” state Governor Tate Reeves said on Twitter. “Please pray for God’s hand to be over all who lost family and friends.”
A local official in Humphreys County, Woodrow Johnson, told CNN his wife woke him up and they heard what sounded like a train. He said his home was destroyed.
“It was a very scary thing,” Johnson said, adding his neighbor’s house, a trailer, was “completely gone.”
The National Weather Service issued a rare tornado emergency for Rolling Fork and surrounding areas at 9pm, warning people to seek shelter from life-threatening conditions and forecasting golf ball-sized hail.
The tornado watch expired in the early hours of Saturday, meteorologists said. More thunderstorms were expected, but they were not forecast to be severe.
The NWS warned residents that as clean-up operations continue, “dangers remain even after the storms move on.”
Malary White, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said damage assessments would not be possible until officials could do a complete survey in the daylight.
“Our main priority right now, especially for the local first responders, it’s life safety and accounting for the people and making sure they are safe,” she told CBS News affiliate WJTV.
In Rolling Fork, Walker said several people were taken to hospital for treatment.
“A lot of families are hurting. This community is in a situation that we never expected,” he told CNN.
“Houses that are torn up can be replaced but we can’t replace a life.”
Tornadoes, a weather phenomenon notoriously difficult to predict, are relatively common in the United States, especially in the central and southern parts of the country.
In January, a series of damaging tornadoes on one day left several people dead in Alabama and Georgia.