By DAVID BRANDT
ENTERPRISE (AP) — As Mississippi storm survivors pick up pieces of their lives, Gov. Haley Barbour says federal officials have agreed to quickly process his request for a disaster declaration to speed up recovery from powerful storms that pounded the South this week.
Barbour traveled Friday to Smithville, a northeast Mississippi town of about 900 residents, where 14 were killed by a tornado with winds over 200 mph. He said 12 people were still missing in the town Friday. The National Weather Service classified the Wednesday afternoon twister as an EF-5, the strongest rating for tornado damage.
Mississippi’s death toll is at least 33 for the storms that struck Tuesday and Wednesday. More than 150 people were injured.
Initial reports from 51 of Mississippi’s 82 counties showed more than 320 homes and 25 businesses damaged. Barbour has asked President Barack Obama for a federal disaster declaration for the entire state.
In east central Mississippi’s Clarke County, tornado survivors Doug and Tina Steen picked through their possessions Friday, trying to find what was salvageable as crews worked to restore electricity and make sure structures were safe.
A half-mile wide tornado zigzagged just east of Enterprise on Wednesday, leaving a path of destruction while narrowly missing an elementary school and other city buildings in the rural area near the Alabama line.
The Steens left their mobile home just before the tornado struck, driving south to avoid the worst of the destruction. When they returned, trees littered the highway and the roof of their home was gone. Half of their neighbor’s trailer was wrapped around a tree as insulation blew across the highway.
“When we first showed up you couldn’t even recognize that there were homes and you could barely see the highway — it was just total destruction,” Doug Steen said Friday. “We’re lucky that everyone in our neighborhood is safe. We’re even able to save some of our possessions.
“It happened so fast there wasn’t even any time for it to rain.”
The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports that in Smithville, Barbour commended the local response, particularly the efforts by church groups. He added that not many people are sleeping in shelters because neighbors have taken them in.
The National Guard, which has been on the scene since Wednesday, will stay in Smithville as the cleanup continues.
“To come into Smithville and see the devastation here, the utter obliteration that’s come to this town, is moving, eye-opening,” Barbour said. “And I’m committed to bringing Smithville back newer and better.”
The tornado that hit Smithville at 3:44 p.m. EDT on Wednesday had winds of 205 mph and was the first EF-5 in Mississippi since 1966, the National Weather Service said Friday. The assessment is preliminary, based on photos taken Thursday and consultation with experts. It will be confirmed later this year after further inspections. The weather service said the tornado was a half-mile wide and was on the ground for close to three miles.
National Guard troops are on duty in Smithville, where dozens of structures were blown to bits.
Barbour on Friday warned of another pending weather disaster: flooding along the Mississippi River, which could affect large portions of the western side of the state. He urged people living along the river to move to higher areas in anticipation of the cresting next month.
“They don’t need to wait until the 18th of May,” he said.
In rural Clarke County, south of Meridian, Traci Mayo said Friday that she and her 9-year-old son went to a neighbor’s house as a tornado approached Wednesday.
Mayo returned home to find her house had only suffered minor damage. But the shop right next to the house was destroyed. Pieces of the red tin roof were found strewn about her neighbor’s yard.
“It’s amazing what it destroys,” Mayo said. “Then just a few feet away everything’s fine.”
Also in Clarke County, Matthew Dennis rode out Wednesday’s tornado in a bathtub with his wife and 5-year-old daughter as the wind blew the roof off his home, uprooted trees in the yard and splattered mud all over the house. All three emerged unscathed. His house and two cars might be a total loss, but Dennis said that wasn’t the biggest concern.
“All this stuff can be replaced,” Dennis said Friday. “I’ve got my wife and baby and that’s all that matters. Within minutes after the tornado was gone, all kinds of people — including people I didn’t even know — came out to help and see what they could do. This was terrible, but it really brings people together.”
In northern Mississippi’s Marshall County, Sheriff Kenny Dickerson said several roads were ruined by heavy rains that washed away large drainage pipes. He said Artwell Craft of Holly Springs was killed by the flooding. Craft, 66, was a former deputy sheriff who had been working for a medical transportation business.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report from Jackson.