YAZOO CITY — Morgan Hayden and Joe Moton stepped carefully through nails, broken glass and pink tufts of insulation, the remnants of their home leveled by a tornado as severe storms killed at least 10 people in rural Mississippi and two in Alabama.
The couple had planned to marry Monday, but with little left besides the clothes on their backs, they weren’t sure what to do.
“It’ll work out, though,” 27-year-old Hayden said Sunday, a day after the tornado ripped through as she and Moton, 31, huddled in a bathtub. The bathroom was the only room that wasn’t destroyed.
They were unhurt, and the stories of other survivors show how much higher the toll could have been as authorities tried to get a better handle on the destruction from violent weather that churned through a half-dozen Southern states over the weekend.
Dale Thrasher, 60, had been alone in Hillcrest Baptist Church when the tornado ripped away wood and metal until all that was left was rubble, Thrasher and the communion table he had climbed under as he prayed for protection.
“The whole building caved in,” he said. “But me and that table were still there.”
Sunday was sunny and breezy as Thrasher and about three dozen members of the Yazoo City church stood in a circle and sang “Till the Storm Passes By.” Thrasher reminded the group that the church has survived tough times before. They rebuilt after their building was destroyed by arson about 10 years ago.
“The Lord brought us through the fire, and brought us back bigger and better,” Thrasher said. “The Lord will bring us back bigger and better this time, if we stick together.”
Hundreds of homes also were damaged in the tornado , which carved a path of devastation from the Louisiana line to east-central Mississippi, and at least three dozen people were hurt. National Weather Service meteorologist Marc McAlister said the tornado had winds of 160 miles an hour and left a path of destruction at least 50 miles long.
“This tornado was enormous,” said Gov. Haley Barbour, who grew up in Yazoo County, a county of about 28,000 people known for blues, catfish and cotton. The twister wreaked “utter obliteration” among the picturesque hills rising from the flat Mississippi Delta, the governor said.
Mississippi’s Choctaw County had the most confirmed deaths: five, including a baby and two other children. Sherry Fair rushed to her aunt’s home in the county. She said an hour and a half after the tornado passed, a woman lay dying in a ditch along a dirt road beside the body of her husband.
“She was laying there just crying,” a shaken Fair said. “She was broke up bad. It hurt me watching, but nobody could get to her. The ambulances couldn’t get through because of the trees.”
Authorities had not released a list of the dead. All inquiries were referred to Coroner Ricky Shivers, who nearly became a victim himself when the twister flipped his truck four times. He went back out in his hospital gown to help identify bodies and was back in the hospital late Sunday.
Tornadoes also were reported in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama. The storm system tracked northeastward, downing trees in northwest Georgia early Sunday and later damaging two schools and several mobile homes in Darlington, S.C.
All that remained of Sullivan’s Crossroads Grocery in Choctaw County was a pile of cinderblocks and some jars of pickled eggs and pigs’ feet. Owner Ron Sullivan, his wife and four other people were inside when the storm tore the wooden roof off. They came away with cuts and bruises.
Sullivan had been on the phone, describing the weather conditions to a meteorologist, when the line went dead and the twister hit, hurling Sullivan into a cinderblock wall.
“I was levitated and flew 15 feet over there to the back wall,” he said. “The only reason I wasn’t killed was the wall was still there. After I hit it, it collapsed.”
A steel fuel storage tank, about 10 feet long, was uprooted by the twister and rolled into the store, coming to rest against a freezer. Hiding on the other side of the freezer was Sullivan’s wife.
Across the street, the home of the parents of Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt was reduced to rubble by the tornado . Oswalt himself was driving a bucket loader Sunday, trying to knock down a damaged tree on the property.
The tornado went on to cut about a 10-mile path through the county, hacking off the tops of pine trees about eight feet above the ground before slamming into three mobile homes.
Alphonzo Evans, 38, had been sleeping in one of the homes when he heard the wind come up. He had planned to take cover in a hole outside, but it was too late. He shut the door.
“By the time I turned around, the wind came up and I went flying,” Evans said.
In Alabama, authorities attributed two deaths to severe weather. A 50-year-old woman was killed when she slipped and hit her head as she headed to a storm shelter Saturday, and a 32-year-old man was killed when the car he was riding in struck a tree that had blown down across a road. More than 30 other injuries were reported in the state, none serious.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley planned to visit Albertville on Monday in northern Alabama to look at storm damage in the area along with local legislators and Albertville Mayor Lindsey Lyons. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford planned to tour Darlington County.
Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were set to survey the worst damaged counties in Mississippi on Monday with state emergency officials, a first step toward a possible presidential disaster declaration, state emergency management spokesman Greg Flynn said.
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