By Aleksandra Michalska and Joseph Ax
SILVER CITY, Mississippi (Reuters) -Rescuers combed through rubble on Saturday after a powerful storm tore across Mississippi late on Friday, killing at least 25 people there and one person in Alabama as it leveled hundreds of buildings and spawned at least one devastating tornado.
The tornado stayed on the ground for about an hour and cut a path of destruction some 170 miles (274 km) long, according to Nicholas Price, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, Mississippi.
In Rolling Fork, a town of around 1,900 in western Mississippi that was hit the hardest, homes were reduced to rubble, tree trunks snapped like twigs and cars were tossed aside like toys. The town's water tower lay twisted on the ground.
Michael Searcy, a storm chaser who saw the tornado approach Rolling Fork, spent hours helping to rescue trapped people.
"As soon as we would go from one vehicle to the next vehicle or from building to building, we could hear screams and we could hear cries for help," he told Reuters. "And we were just basically in small groups, digging through the rubble, trying to find and extricate people."
Members of one family narrowly escaped by taking shelter in a bathroom; the rest of the house collapsed around them, and the high winds dropped a van on top of the home, Searcy said.
In Silver City, a rural community of around 300, residents described locking themselves in interior rooms and cowering inside bathtubs as the tornado swept through.
"I thought about God," said Katherine Ray. "I just started saying, 'I followed the Ten Commandments, Lord, it's just me at the house,' and I just said, 'Just take care of me.'"
Her prayer was answered, she said; her trailer was damaged but still standing, while many of her neighbors saw their trailers completely destroyed.
Governor Tate Reeves, who visited Silver City on Saturday, declared a state of emergency in the affected areas.
"The scale of the damage and loss is evident everywhere affected today," he wrote on Twitter. "Homes, businesses ... entire communities."
In Alabama, which was also struck by the same storm system, rescuers pulled a man from the mud when his trailer was overturned, but the man later died from his injuries, according to the Morgan County Sheriff's Office. That appeared to be the only reported death in that state as of Saturday evening.
U.S. President Joe Biden described the images from Mississippi as "heartbreaking" and said in a statement that he had spoken with Reeves and offered his condolences and full federal support for the recovery.
"To those impacted by these devastating storms, and to the first responders and emergency personnel working to help their fellow Americans, we will do everything we can to help," Biden said. "We will be there as long as it takes. We will work together to deliver the support you need to recover."
Mississippi officials set up three emergency shelters, including at the National Guard Armory in Rolling Fork. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Deanne Criswell will travel to Mississippi on Sunday, the White House said.
Parts of Mississippi and Alabama could face damaging winds, hail and possible tornados again on Sunday, the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center said.
About 26,000 customers remained without power as of Saturday evening in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee due to the storm, according to the website PowerOutage.us.
'MY CITY IS GONE'
Mississippi's emergency management agency said on Saturday afternoon that the death toll had risen to 25, with dozens more injured. Four people who had been reported missing earlier have been located, the agency said.
At least 12 of those deaths occurred in Rolling Fork, its mayor, Eldridge Walker, told CNN earlier in the day. The city is 75% Black, and about one-fifth of the population lives below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.
"My city is gone, but we are resilient," Walker said on CNN. "We are going to come back strong."
Jarrett Brown, a volunteer with the disaster response organization Team Rubicon who traveled to Rolling Fork, told Reuters the damage showed that the storm was inescapable for some residents.
"In some of these areas, there was no safe spot to go to," he said via a video call.
Tim and Tracy Harden, owners of Chuck's Dairy Barn in Rolling Fork, said in a Facebook post that they hid inside a small walk-in cooler one minute before the tornado demolished their building.
"Forever grateful to the customer with the broken arm that kept going and freed us all from the cooler," they wrote.
The National Weather Service in Jackson has deployed teams to assess the damage and determine whether additional tornados touched down, according to Price, the meteorologist.
At least 24 reports of tornadoes, stretching from western Mississippi into Alabama, were issued to the National Weather Service on Friday night and into Saturday morning by storm chasers and observers.
(Reporting by Aleksandra Michalska in Silver City, Mississippi; Arlene Eiras and Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; and Joseph Ax in New York. Additional reporting by Deborah Lutterbeck in Washington.Writing by Joseph Ax and Lucia Mutikani. Editing by Matthew Lewis, Marguerita Choy and Edwina Gibbs)