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A tornado kills dozens in Mississippi

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We begin tonight's program in western Mississippi, where a rare long-track tornado left a trail of devastation Friday night. At least two dozen people are dead there and in Alabama, which also saw extreme weather. Thousands of homes are without power, and many people are facing a future where everything they own has been destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the mobile park that I'm at, there's nothing left. There are vehicles on top of the area diner. There's a pool table out there and a couple of arcade machines. But that's all that's standing there. Every individual mobile home is gone.

DETROW: Emily Wagster Pettus is a reporter for the Associated Press, where she covers Mississippi politics. And she's with us now from Rolling Fork, Miss., where the damage was most severe. Emily, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS: Hi, Scott. Thank you.

DETROW: I mean, the image is coming out of Rolling Fork and other towns show cars and trucks driven into the ground at right angles, shredded homes, shredded warehouses, debris everywhere. Start by telling us what you're seeing today.

PETTUS: Yes. The destruction - I mean, some of it is just crazy. Like you said, there are vehicles that were just turned upside down. I saw a truck upside down in a ditch. I saw large hunks of metal wrapped around trees, houses with the roofs just pulled apart. The First Baptist Church, the steeple had been knocked down to the ground. There are a lot of people in Rolling Fork to help, though. A lot of people showed up with chainsaws today.

DETROW: And what sort of conversations have you been having today?

PETTUS: Oh, my goodness. I spoke to a woman who was in her living room. She said there was no storm siren at all. She was watching television and knew that there was a possibility of bad weather. Like anybody, I think, in that situation, she was sort of surprised by how quickly it turned terrible.

DETROW: Yeah.

PETTUS: Her sunroom was just blown apart. Fortunately, she was OK. Her family is OK. But just across the street from her, there's a woman who lived in a mobile home. That mobile home was obliterated, and her neighbor was killed.

DETROW: I mean, at this point in time, it's probably too early to know the full extent of the damage. But as we have this conversation, what do we know, big picture, about what happened?

PETTUS: One thing that's important to remember about this part of Mississippi is that it's very poor. The counties where this huge tornado went through, Sharkey and Issaquena, are two of the least - sort of most sparsely populated counties in the state. It's a largely agricultural area. They grow a lot of cotton, corn and soybeans around here. There are a lot of people who work at kind of low-wage jobs. And so there are a lot of questions about just the ability of people to get back on their feet and recover financially. I mean, some people lost everything.

DETROW: I mean, the - and the extent of the storm, it seems so powerful, so long lasting in a rare way. Do meteorologists have a sense of why this tornado was so, so powerful?

PETTUS: You know, that is a great question. And I wish I had paid more attention to that, but I've really not been out in the field interviewing people...

DETROW: Makes sense. Makes sense.

PETTUS: ...Not talking to meteorologists.

DETROW: All right. Well, Emily Wagster Pettus, a reporter with the Associated Press, thank you for sharing some of your reporting with us today from Rolling Fork, Miss.

PETTUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.