Mississippi communities regroup after storms kill 4, injure 50; many homes, businesses damaged

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Four people are dead after severe weather hit two counties about 80 miles southeast of Jackson, Mississippi. The storms flipped cars, knocked out power to thousands and damaged several homes and businesses. (Dec. 24)

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COLUMBIA, Mississippi — Elizabeth Bordelon planned to go Christmas shopping until nasty weather blowing through southeastern Mississippi convinced her to hold off.

By the time she returned Tuesday to her Columbia trailer park she had called home for only a short time, a neighbor's mobile home had flipped onto her grandmother's, trapping her and Bordelon's aunt. She said her grandmother, 73-year-old Maryjean Sartin, was killed. She was one of four killed in Columbia and Laurel by likely tornadoes that tore through the communities.

"I had left the house to go pick up a friend to go to Hattiesburg and do some Christmas shopping," said Bordelon, whose sons are 6 and 4. "But the weather turned so bad that we decided to wait. By the time I got home, I'd rounded the corner and then saw all the damage."

Bordelon, 26, said the wind from the storm apparently blew under the neighbor's trailer and flipped it. Bordelon said her aunt was hospitalized.

Although she identified her grandmother, authorities have not released the names of the victims.

Chasity Magee, 32, owned the trailer that flipped onto Sartin's home. She said she and her two children were at her mother's home about a mile away when the storm raged.

"I saw pictures of the trailer park, but it didn't register to me that that was my trailer (that flipped)," Magee said.

She said when she returned Wednesday, she learned of Sartin's death. She managed to climb through what was a window to retrieve some personal items but that was about it.

"I couldn't salvage Christmas for them," she said of her 7-year-old and 5-month-old children, "but we'll be fine. We'll all be OK."

The destructive system damaged communities from Mississippi to Georgia and was making its way off the Eastern coast. Flood warnings were issued for several counties in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana.

In Columbia, police were stationed at all major intersections after traffic lights were either swept away or destroyed. At least 20 people were injured there, according to Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials.

The Oak Crest Trailer Park included between 15 and 20 homes. On Wednesday, five were still standing but most had damage. There was not much left on the site besides wood and metal debris, clothes and a teddy bear or two strewn throughout.

Utility crews worked Wednesday to restore electricity to the area.

About 6,000 people were without power after the storm Tuesday, Gov. Phil Bryant said at a news conference in Columbia, about 80 miles southeast of the state capital of Jackson.

Mississippi Power told The Associated Press about 300 customers still were out, but most would have power by the end of the day.

Bryant toured the stricken area by helicopter and by vehicle. He said state emergency officials believe the destruction was caused by a tornado, although the National Weather Service has not confirmed that yet.

State emergency workers were still evaluating the damage in Columbia, which is in Marion County, and in Jones County to the northeast. Three of the four people killed were in mobile homes and the fourth at a business.

Some 40 businesses and 30 homes were damaged in Columbia, Bryant said. About 10 to 15 buildings were damaged in the more rural Jones County.

Columbia Mayor Robert Bourne said the tornado straddled U.S. 98, so damage was done on both sides of the four-lane highway. Bryant had said earlier that the tornado cut a swath of about 3 to 3.5 miles long through the city of about 6,500 and about a quarter of a mile wide.

David Burns, 19, of Sumrall, a mechanic at Bumpers Tire and Accessories, said he and two other workers were in the shop when they saw the sky darken and rain pour down. Then a power line snapped, and the group decided to go to the business' showroom.

By the time one of them got through the shop door, however, the pressure from the storm kept slamming the door shut, hitting Burns at least twice on his arm. Then the roof blew off.

"I could feel the wind," Burns recalled. "I didn't want to be picked up so that's when I grabbed the first thing I could find."

Burns said he grabbed onto a piece of equipment and one of his co-workers grabbed him to hang on. He suffered a broken left arm.

The roof was ripped off the building of the Jack Morris Gas Co., a natural gas supplier.

Wanda Morris, a family member who works in the company office, said she was watching TV when a weather warning came across and the town sirens started screaming. She gathered employees and customers, about 15 people in all, into a vault in the building, where they rode out the storm.

"When we heard the sirens the second time, I started yelling, 'Get into the vault! Get into the vault! And I ran outside and started yelling," she said. Only one employee failed to make it in time and hid under a metal table. He had minor injuries.

Although the business itself was heavily damaged, a sign outside bearing the Ten Commandments was left intact.

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