Biden tours Mississippi tornado wreckage as more storms threaten US

Visit comes as another powerful spring storm sweeps across US South and Midwest, threatening further extreme weather.

'In three minutes this neighbourhood was basically gone,' US President Joe Biden says after surveying storm damage in Rolling Fork, Mississippi [Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

President Joe Biden has toured the wreckage of a major storm that hit the state of Mississippi last week as large swathes of the United States braced for more extreme weather, including tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.

Speaking from the hard-hit Mississippi community of Rolling Fork, Biden said on Friday that the federal government would cover for 30 days the full cost of the state’s emergency measures in response to the storm on March 24.

Twenty-five people were killed in Mississippi by the extreme weather, which resulted in at least one tornado that tore across portions of the state. One person was killed in neighbouring Alabama.

On Friday, at least one person was killed and more than two dozen hurt, some critically, in the Little Rock area of Arkansas, authorities said.

The town of Wynne in northeastern Arkansas was also devastated and officials reported two dead there, along with destroyed homes and people trapped in the debris.

Authorities also said that a theatre roof collapsed during a tornado in Belvidere, Illinois, killing one person and injuring 28. The police department in the town, located about 113km (70 miles) northwest of Chicago, said the collapse occurred at the Apollo Theatre during a heavy metal concert. About 260 people were in the venue when the roof collapsed.

Biden on Friday, standing in front of a destroyed structure in Rolling Fork, a town of about 1,900 residents in western Mississippi where 13 people died, said: “Three minutes – in three minutes this neighbourhood was basically gone … Everything gone.”

An aerial view of a neighbourhood destroyed shows a house where the roof and outer walls are missing. There is debris everywhere as well as trees stripped of leaves lying on the ground.
Debris strewn around tornado-damaged homes in Rolling Fork, Mississippi [File: Julio Cortez/AP Photo]

“Three hundred homes and businesses are nothing more than piles of twisted materials,” he said.

“Mixed up with personal items that mattered so much. Teddy Bears, family albums, clothes, dishes, basics of life all gone.”

Biden declared a state of emergency in Mississippi last Sunday, ordering federal aid to supplement state, tribal and local recovery efforts in the affected areas.

The assistance can go to helping residents rebuild homes and access temporary housing, among other measures, the White House said.

Speaking on Friday during Biden’s visit, Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker said: “What has been lost cannot be recovered.

“But we are confident that the people of Rolling Fork, that we are resilient and we will make this community bigger and better.”

‘Significant damage’ in Arkansas

The promises to rebuild in Mississippi came as meteorologists warned millions of people to brace for enormous storms brewing over at least 15 states in the Midwest and southern US on Friday.

The weather threatened to bring tornadoes, blizzards and freezing rain to a vast section of the country, including areas affected by last week’s storm.

More than 85 million people were under weather advisories on Friday as the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center forecast an unusually large outbreak of thunderstorms with the potential to cause hail, damaging wind gusts and strong tornadoes that could move for long distances over the ground.

The police officer is talking to a person on the other side of a large fallen tree. There looks to be a telegraph pole leaning to the side.
A uniformed US Secret Service police officer talks to a person digging through debris as President Joe Biden was set to arrive in Rolling Fork, Mississippi [Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

A fierce tornado blasted through Little Rock, the Arkansas state capital, ripping away roofs and walls from many buildings, uprooting trees, flipping over vehicles and leaving hundreds of people injured, according to media reports.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences declared a mass-casualty event after a “catastrophic” tornado hit the city, a CBS affiliate reported on Friday, adding hundreds of people were injured.

Aerial footage posted by The Weather Channel showed a heavily damaged area of Little Rock spanning several blocks with numerous homes missing roofs and walls, some of them collapsed, and overturned vehicles littering streets.

The National Weather Service also reported that tornado activity had destroyed several homes and downed trees in and around Little Rock.

The city’s mayor, Frank Scott Jr, said he was in contact with Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders to request National Guard assistance. “Again, please stay away from the affected areas to allow emergency responders access,” he wrote on Twitter.

Huckabee Sanders said the state suffered “significant damage”, without providing further information. “Arkansans must continue to stay weather aware as storms are continuing to move through,” she tweeted.

The area at greatest risk for storms followed a large stretch of the Mississippi River from Wisconsin all the way to Mississippi, with rare high-risk advisories centred around Memphis; and between Davenport, Iowa, and Quincy, Illinois as well as surrounding areas.

Forecasters issued tornado watches over both high-risk regions until Friday evening, with the weather service expecting numerous tornadoes and calling it a “particularly dangerous situation”.

As of Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service had issued a tornado watch for eastern and central Iowa, northwestern Illinois, northeastern Missouri and the southwest corner of Wisconsin.

It urged the 5 million people living in these areas to be prepared for numerous strong tornadoes on Friday afternoon and evening.

The service also warned that northeastern Arkansas, Missouri’s southern boot-heel, western Kentucky and western Tennessee were at risk of tornadoes, as well.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies