TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - A tornado tore through three counties in south-central Mississippi on Sunday, injuring at least 10 people, ripping roofs off houses and damaging several buildings at the University of Southern Mississippi, authorities said.
The Forrest County seat of Hattiesburg, located about 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Jackson, the state capital, appeared to bear the brunt of the twister, which also heavily damaged a high school stadium complex and baseball field in town, officials said.
Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee told CNN he knew of 10 to 15 people being taken to hospitals, though their injuries were not believed to be serious, he said. The cable network broadcast photos of several homes in Hattiesburg badly mangled from the storm.
In the adjacent town of Petal, at least 100 houses were damaged or destroyed, and several businesses were hard hit as well, including a hardware store left in shambles, Mayor Hal Marx told Reuters. He said people appeared to have sustained only minor injuries.
“Mostly people are just shaken up and in shock,” he said.
Greg Flynn of the state Emergency Management Agency said he had reports of three people hurt in nearby Marion County but no details.
He said a search-and-rescue team from the nearby town of McComb was being called in to Hattiesburg to help look through debris for anyone who might be trapped.
“A tornado did touchdown in Hattiesburg,” at about 5:30 p.m. said Jim Hennessey, a spokesman for the Forrest County Emergency Management District. “We’re still getting damage reports.”
There were widespread power outages in the area.
The twister damaged several buildings of the University of Southern Mississippi, alma mater of retired National Football League star quarterback Brett Favre, including a performing arts centre and an alumni house, the university said in a statement.
Kris Walters, 40, a Baptist minister on campus, said he and two of his children took shelter in a closet with a mattress on top of them until the storm passed, adding that his house escaped serious damage.
“I have lived here 40 years, and this is the first tornado I have ever seen like this,” he told Reuters.
Joby Bass, a university professor interviewed on CNN, said the porches on his house “peeled off” and trees toppled onto his roof as he and his dogs huddled in a closet for safety.
“A lot of houses on this street are completely roofless,” Bass said. He said the campus was largely empty because students had an extended weekend to celebrate Mardi Gras. The university said no injuries were reported on campus.
Video footage showed what appeared to be a large, gray tornado, filmed from a distance, churning through town as a cloud of debris swirled around it.
Flynn, the state emergency management spokesman, said the twister cut a path of destruction through three Mississippi counties: Forrest, Lamar and Marion.
The Hattiesburg area also suffered heavy property damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
(Corrects first name of professor to Joby, from Jody, in 13th paragraph)
Reporting by Emily Le Coz, Kaija Wilkinson and Chris Francescani; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Doina Chiacu