20 injured when tornado rips through Mississippi
Thursday, March 26th 2009, 6:09 pm
MAGEE, Miss. (AP) -- Residents in a tornado-ravaged community took advantage of clearing skies Thursday to collect family keepsakes and begin cleaning up from a storm that left 20 injured and dozens of homes and businesses flattened.
But Magee, a town of about 5,000 in south-central Mississippi's pine forests, may not have much time to begin serious cleanup as another storm system with the potential for more destruction was expected to be over Mississippi late Thursday or early Friday.
While families were busy moving debris from around homes and covering exposed ceilings, the steady grinding of chain saws echoed through the community as utility crews cleared fallen trees from power lines.
Magee Mayor Jimmy Clyde said the community was in the early stages of assessing the destruction from a pre-dawn twister that smashed through dozens of homes and apartment duplexes and damaged two churches.
"This is like reliving Hurricane Katrina all over again and that's no fun," Clyde said as office phones rang constantly with reports of storm-damaged neighborhoods and lost power and water service. "We got hit back then and we've really been hit now."
Phillip Runnels spent the afternoon sifting through what was the barely recognizable remains of his mother's mobile home in the Westlake Mobile Home Park on Mississippi 28.
His mother, Pamela McCallum, 48, was in good condition after being airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Her boyfriend, Larry Pearson, 58, was also injured and was in fair condition.
"She's in pretty bad shape and Mr. Larry, he's in worse shape," Runnels said as he continued his inspection.
The twister smashed through Magee around 1:30 a.m. as severe thunderstorms rumbled across the Southeast. Power blackouts affected tens of thousands of Louisiana residents and authorities reported damage to some Alabama homes. Georgia residents also braced for potentially heavy rains.
There were no immediate reports of deaths.
Mississippi's governor declared a state of emergency in Simpson County, where Magee is located. At least nine counties reported damage Thursday. An elementary school was closed in Amite County in southern Mississippi after high winds tore off part of its roof.
The Salvation Army and other aid organizations hurried warm meals and supplies to stricken areas.
"We're getting a lot of help in here," Clyde said. "That's the thing about Mississippi. Everybody just helps each other in times like this."
Clyde said homes in some areas were "basically leveled" and damage was extensive just outside the city limits.
Jeff Giachelli, 48, said he and his wife, Cappy, were asleep when the storm hit. He called to his wife when the windows of their red-brick home shattered. His roof also had been sheared off.
"We got in the closet and it just collapsed," he said.
In a nearby neighborhood, several brick duplex apartments were smashed and cars were flipped upside down.
Stephanie Malley, 35, cried as she looked at the shell of her home, its roof gone. She awoke when flying debris hit her in the back. She grabbed her 11- and 13-year-old sons and pulled them into a bathroom.
"We stayed in the bathroom for a long time until everything started coming down," Malley said.
Her 11-year-old needed nine stitches for a cut on his leg. Nearby houses were marked with red spray paint to show that emergency workers who dug through the rubble didn't find any injured or dead residents.
At least 60 homes were damaged, said Katherine Gunby, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The nearby Corinth Baptist Church was so shattered that "only the doors to its sanctuary were left standing," she said.
Members of the 100-year-old church stepped around the red brick rubble and walked through a cemetery where tombstones were knocked to the ground. A white church van was overturned.
There were still plans to hold Sunday services in the parking lot, however.
"Our church is still here, because our church is the people, but the building is gone," said member Charlene Loyd.
Another tornado touched down Wednesday in Mississippi's Lauderdale County, heavily damaging nine homes and a business, but causing no injuries, officials said.
In Baton Rouge, La., the roof over Louisiana State University's $3.1 million indoor football practice field was damaged overnight by a passing storm. Crews there worked Thursday to restore electricity to thousands.