Rescuers combed neighborhoods of splintered homes in Mississippi, ferrying the injured on all-terrain vehicles where roads were impassable after a devastating tornado sliced through the state and killed at least 10 people, including three children.
The high winds yesterday tore roofs off buildings in hard-hit Yazoo County, where Gov. Haley Barbour grew up. He described "utter obliteration" among the picturesque hills rising from the flat Mississippi Delta. Heavy thunderstorms also swept across north Alabama, Georgia and other states early today, downing trees and unleashing scattered hail.
Meteorologists said it was too soon to tell whether a single long-lasting tornado — or multiple shorter ones — caused the arc of death and damage in far-flung Mississippi communities.
Yazoo County's coroner, Ricky Shivers, attended to the dead after his own truck was picked up by the winds and flipped over, leaving him with cuts and bruises. Yet even as authorities did their difficult work in more than a dozen counties, some residents told stories of unlikely survival amid the destruction.
"The roof was caving in, TVs flying off the shelves and it was horrible," said Mitchell Saxton, the owner of Ribeye's Steak House in Yazoo City.
Those with him in the restaurant ran into a walk-in freezer to safety when they saw the tornado. Saxton's restaurant was destroyed but no one was hurt there.
"We got in the walk-in freezer, sat in there for about ten minutes," Saxton said. "When I came out it was really bad. Just thanking the good Lord I'm here and able to talk with you all."
Tornadoes were also 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.
In Yazoo City, Malcolm Gordon, 63, stood with family members peering out at the neighborhood through a broken window.
Above them, the roof was gone, a tree lay across part of the house and power lines stretched across the yard. The smell of shredded pine trees hung in the warm breeze amid modest houses and mobile homes.
Gordon and his wife, Diane, hid in a closet while much of the neighborhood was blown away.
"I'll just bulldoze what's left and start over," he said.
Essie Hendrix, manager of Peebles department store in Yazoo City, said she and other employees were inside with about 15 customers when the tornado struck. An assistant manager took the customers to the back of the store, and Hendrix saw the tornado barreling through the parking lot.
"It was like a rumbling and a roaring and stuff was falling," Hendrix said. "It sounded like it was going to suck us out of there. It lasted about two minutes, but it felt like it lasted an hour."
No one in the store was injured, about 100 yards away from the steakhouse that was destroyed.
The severe weather began in Louisiana, just across the state line from Mississippi when a tornado destroyed 12 homes and warehouses at Complex Chemical Co., which makes antifreeze and other automotive fluids, owner Jerry Melton said.
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.
Authorities in Choctow County were going house-to-house in the areas with the worst damage to check for any injured.
In Yazoo City, stunned residents stood on a hill overlooking the destruction. A National Guard helicopter sat nearby, and later took the governor on an aerial tour.
Three broken crosses stood near a flattened church. A nearby funeral home was reduced to rubble. In a patch of woods, pieces of tin were twisted high up in the broken trees.
Thousands across the state were without electricity, and downed power lines and trees blocked roads. At least four people had been brought by four-wheeler to a triage center at an old discount store parking lot, Yazoo City Mayor McArthur Straughter said as sirens whined in the background.
Jim Pollard, a spokesman for American Medical Response ambulance service, said four patients from Yazoo County were airlifted and some 20 others were taken to hospitals. At least four people were in critical condition.