Pope Francis on Sunday offered prayers for the victims of a deadly tornado that struck parts of Mississippi and Alabama Friday night.
Cutting a swath of ruin across the impoverished Mississippi Delta, the tornado killed at least 26 people and left twisted piles of debris where homes, businesses, and neighborhoods once stood. The death toll is expected to rise, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) warned.
Speaking after his weekly Angelus reflection in St. Peter’s Square March 26, the pope included victims of the storm among those suffering around the world from war and natural disasters.
“Yesterday, the solemnity of the Annunciation, we renewed the consecration of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in the certainty that only the conversion of hearts can open the way that leads to peace,” he said.
“Let us continue to pray for the tormented Ukrainian people. And let us stay close also to the earthquake victims of Turkey and Syria,” he said. “Let us also pray for the population of the state of Mississippi, struck by a devastating tornado.”
On Sunday President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration to speed federal aid to the area, adding that he and First Lady Jill Biden are praying for the victims of the storm.
“Jill and I are praying for those who have lost loved ones in the devastating tornadoes in Mississippi and for those whose loved ones are missing,” Biden said in a statement.
“The images from across Mississippi are heartbreaking. While we are still assessing the full extent of the damage, we know that many of our fellow Americans are not only grieving for family and friends, they’ve lost their homes and businesses,” he added.
The National Weather Service warned that more severe weather is possible for the area on Sunday.
‘Wiped off the map’
The loss of 25 people so far in Mississippi makes the March 24 twister the deadliest tornado in the state in at least 50 years, Mississippi’s Clarion Ledger reported. One man died in Alabama.
Much of the destruction is centered in the rural Mississippi towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork, about 60 miles northeast of Jackson, USA Today reported. Drone footage the Clarion Ledger posted on its website showed the breathtaking scale of the damage.
“It is almost complete devastation,” Royce Steed, emergency manager in Humphreys County, where Silver City is located, told USA Today. “This little old town … is more or less wiped off the map.”
At least 18 of the dead were from Rolling Fork, with other residents still unaccounted for, the Clarion Ledger reported.
“There are nearly 20 homes on Seventh Street with around 80 residents. Every home was a complete loss,” the news outlet reported.
MEMA officials have preliminarily categorized the tornado with an EF-4 rating. That classification is for tornadoes packing wind gusts from 166 mph to 200 mph, according to the AccuWeather weather service.
The Clarion Ledger spoke with Seventh Street resident John Brewer, a long-haul trucker who was home with his wife, Joyce, when the tornado roared through the neighborhood. The tornado lifted his 27,000-pound truck and dropped it on his neighbor’s home, killing L.A. Pierce and his wife, Melissa.
Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, issued a statement Saturday pledging the support of the diocese’s Catholic Charities disaster response team.
“At this time, we join in prayer for all those affected by the storms that crossed our state and for the repose of the souls of those lost to these devastating tornadoes,” Kopacz said.
“We pray for those who are desperately trying to reach loved ones and unable to reach them, as well as those still seeking safety who are missing as a result of the storms,” he continued.
“We give thanks and pray for first responders, who are working tirelessly in affected communities trying to reach those missing, restore power, and assist those surviving,” the bishop added.
“I encourage all to continue to pray and find ways to support all affected communities,” Kopacz concluded.