A powerful storm system was menacing a large swath of the South early Tuesday, killing more than two dozen people from Arkansas to Alabama over more than two days of destruction. Here are the some stories from people in Mississippi and Alabama that made it through the frightening chaos.
When the TVs switched back from tornado warnings to regular programming, Darrell Haney thought his community outside Fayetteville, Tenn., was out of the woods. Then, live weather reports cut back in, warning of a possible tornado as little as a minute away from his home.
Haney quickly retrieved two grandchildren and huddled in an interior bathroom with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. Almost immediately, he said, a tree crashed into a front room where his nearly 2-year-old daughter had been sleeping, and the roof was lifted off of the master bedroom.
“You know, the house is being torn apart around you, and we’re just crying out, ‘God protect us,'” Haney said Tuesday. “Because at that point you’re totally hopeless and helpless.”
Surveying the damage around him, the pastor and a school bus driver tried to put positive light on the destruction that included his nearby church and the school bus.
“Everything’s gone,” he said. “But the main thing is everyone’s OK, the lives are taken care of.”
Fred Muawad has been through this before. Three years ago, his popular Daylight Donuts in Vilonia, Ark., survived a tornado.
This time, it didn’t. The strong twister that struck the town of 3,800 on Sunday virtually wiped away the strip mall that housed Muawad’s small shop.
He didn’t have insurance, and since he’s not sure of the strip mall will rebuilt, he wasn’t sure if he’d reopen. One thing was for sure: Vilonia was behind him.
“This community has been great to me — we’ve been one big family for 11 years,” Muawad said Tuesday. “We’ve been through good times and bad.”
The bad has happened twice in three years. Two twisters hitting the same town three years apart may seem a cruel twist of fate, but people in this exurb of Little Rock said the kindness and warmth of the people trumps anything Mother Nature can throw at them.
One of the hardest-hit areas in Louisville, Miss., was the dozen-building Eiland Plaza apartment complex, where authorities were still limiting access Tuesday.
Yolanda Triplett was at home in her ground-floor apartment Monday when the tornado hit.
“I was laying on my couch and I heard it,” Triplett said. “So I went to my hall closet and that’s where I was when it hit.”
When Triplett came out, her apartment and belongings were shredded.
“I had no windows, water was in there, bricks on the outside were torn off,” she said.
Triplett was one of 71 people who stayed in an American Red Cross shelter at Louisville’s First Baptist Church Monday night. Like some other residents of the apartment complex, she hadn’t figured out yet Tuesday where she would go. “Not yet,” she said.
Mark Wade and his family heard the dire warnings on TV and the tornado sirens, and were prepared to ride out the storm in their closet when a neighbor across the street on Vilonia’s Aspen Creek Drive in Arkansas, yelled out: “Come over! We’re going in the storm cellar!”
So Wade, his wife and 3-year-old son joined 10 other people and seven dogs in a cramped underground shelter Sunday evening. When they emerged, their homes were gone. All gone. Stripped to the foundation.
“If we hadn’t gone to that cellar I don’t know if we would be here,” Wade, 28, said Monday, picking through the debris of what was once his home.
Pam Montgomery walked with her gray Scottish terrier Ava on Tuesday morning in the parking lot of St. Luke’s United Methodist church in the Joyner neighborhood in Tupelo, Miss. She was working at the city newspaper when the tornado hit. She was moved into a storm shelter and was safe, but her husband, who has health problems, was home with the dog.
Montgomery and her colleagues emerged from the shelter after the storm and checked Facebook, which had postings saying the Joyner neighborhood was especially hard hit.
“Everybody was stunned,” she said.
Minutes passed and she could not reach her husband. Those minutes turned into an hour, then longer.
“He does not have a cellphone and all the power lines were down,” said Montgomery, 54, of her husband.
Finally, she was able to get a neighbor to walk over to her house to check if he was OK. He was.
“I couldn’t come home and I had no way of contacting him. It was just nerve wracking and scary yesterday.”
After the tornado pounced on Tupelo, Miss., one gas station looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant. Francis Gonzalez owns a convenience store and Mexican restaurant attached to that station. Gonzalez, her three children and two employees ducked for cover in the store’s cooler shortly after a cellphone blared a tornado warning.
In the nick of time. Within seconds, the wind picked up and glass shattered. The roof over the gas pumps was reduced to aluminum shards. A nearby SUV had its windows blown out. The storefront window had a large hole in it. Debris lay everywhere.
“It took us by surprise,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. Stunned by the destruction all around, she added: “My Lord, how can all this happen in just one second?”
At the Highlands, a sprawling mobile home park that’s about five miles from Jackson-Evers International Airport people spent Tuesday picking through the rubble of more than a dozen homes that were obliterated or heavily damaged.
Emergency officials said no one was killed in the Highlands, but several were injured.
Dagmar Almenares, a 33-year-old native of Cuba, said he considers himself lucky. He and his 62-year-old mother were in their rented mobile home when a tornado picked it up and blew it apart.
“It’s hard to explain,” Almenares said Tuesday. “I was rolling around inside the trailer, then it landed.”
The black metal beams that were the base of his home landed across the street, about 50 yards away. The rest of the home landed on top of a neighbor’s mobile home, making a twisted heap of metal, lumber, furniture, appliances and yellow insulation. Several men helped him pick through the debris under blue skies Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Fayetteville, Tenn., Adrian Sainz in Tupelo, Miss., Jeff Amy in Louisville, Miss., Jack Elliott Jr. and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., Jim Salter and Andrew DeMillo in Vilonia, Ark., and contributed to this story.