National/World

Rescuers fan out after twister kills 10 in Miss.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rescuers spread out Sunday to find anyone who might be left behind in the rural Mississippi countryside hit hard by a tornado that killed 10 people a day earlier, while others returned to demolished homes to salvage what they could and bulldoze the rubble.

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 estimated at least 100 houses in Yazoo County alone had severe damage but said his estimate could rise later. 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. Officials were still working to assess the total damage in Choctaw and Yazoo counties.

Speaking in the parking lot of a heavily damaged restaurant, Barbour said emergency crews would be going to isolated houses in rural areas they had been unable to reach in the chaotic hours after Saturday's storm.

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.

In Yazoo County, 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."

The group stood in a circle and sang the song. Some held Bibles, some held babies and some held each other.

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."

Thrasher told the group it wasn't the first time they had overcome adversity. The church was torched and destoryed by an arsonist about 10 years ago.

"The Lord brought us through the fire, and brought us back bigger and better. The Lord will bring us back bigger and better this time, if we stick together," said Thrasher, who has tried to help hold the church together since its pastor died recently.

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 crews were working to restore service.

The same storm front spawned heavy thunderstorms that raked across the Southeast, snapping trees, damaging rooftops and scattering hail.

Yazoo County's coroner, Ricky Shivers, was in his own truck when the winds flipped the vehicle four times. Shivers went to the hospital to have bruised ribs and cuts treated, then went out to help identify bodies in his hospital gown. He told the AP by phone Sunday morning that he did not know whether any more people had died because he was back in the hospital having his wounds tended to.

Indeed, 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.

A few items from the store had been salvaged -- jars of pickled eggs and pigs' feet.

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 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, Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt 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.

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.

The Oswalts' home sat across the street from Sullivan's store. The twister apparently followed the road away from the house and made its way over a grove of pine trees. Most of the trees in the twister's path had the tops hacked off about eight feet above the ground, as though someone had sawed through them. After that, it slammed into three mobile homes.

Alphonzo Evans, 38, was in one of the homes Saturday. He was sifting through what was left -- most of the house had been blown into the woods, only the blocks it stood on remaining. He said he had been asleep when he heard the wind come up. He had planned to take cover in a hole outside, but it was too late. He shut the door.

"By the time I turned around, the wind came up and I went flying," Evans said.

The trailer flipped twice and broke apart, and Evans woke up on the ground beneath a fallen pine tree, wedged between his television and stove, he said.

Sheriff's Deputy Johnny Ellington in Choctaw County said the storm left a swath of destruction about 10 miles long in that area.

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, Miss., 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.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jered Allen in Jackson said the storm's size won't be rated until the survey crews completed their work. He now says those crews, because of the enormity of the storm, probably will be working into Tuesday.

(Copyright ©2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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