(Reuters) - A powerful tornado struck southern Mississippi before dawn on Saturday, killing four people and causing widespread property damage, state and local officials said as they warned residents to brace for a second round of severe storms.
The twister, which touched down at about 3:45 a.m. Central time (0945 GMT), reduced many buildings to splinters, downed power lines and flipped over numerous cars, according to photographs shared by officials on social media and footage aired by local news outlets.
The tornado ripped a path of destruction 25 miles long and a half-mile wide across parts of four counties. The adjacent towns of Hattiesburg and Petal - about 75 miles north of Biloxi on the Gulf Coast - bore the storm’s brunt, authorities said.
At least four people were confirmed dead in Hattiesburg, three of them killed in trailer homes, Mayor Johnny DuPree told a news conference. Television station WDAM in Hattiesburg said the victims ranged in age from 20 to 72.
“This was a lethal and extremely dangerous storm,” said Governor Phil Bryant, who issued an emergency declaration for affected areas, adding that he expected to consult with White House officials soon.
Ray Coleman, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said 28 people in Forrest County alone were reported hurt, a mix of minor and severe injuries but none believed to be life-threatening.
Authorities urged people to remain vigilant in light of National Weather Service forecasts calling for additional severe thunderstorm storms moving into the region on Saturday night, including the possibility of high winds and golfball-sized hail.
Officials in Hattiesburg and Petal said they expected to enforce a dawn-to-dusk curfew.
Shortly after the storm, rescue teams went door to door in Hattiesburg, a city of about 45,000 residents, searching for people who might be trapped in storm debris. But Coleman said that by late afternoon residents were all accounted for.
William Carey University, a liberal arts college located in the town, was especially hard hit, forcing an evacuation of dormitories in the midst of the storm.
At the height of the emergency, more than 16,000 homes and businesses in the state were without electricity, emergency management officials said.
Officials closed Interstate 59 north of Hattiesburg, emergency officials said.
Tornados were also spotted in several counties in neighboring Alabama, but there were no initial reports of damage. A tornado watch was in effect through east central and southeastern parts of both states.
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Frank McGurty; Editing by G Crosse and Leslie Adler