‘Why we chase’: Storm chasers share experiences following Rolling Fork tornado

Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 7:30 PM CDT
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ROLLING FORK, Miss. (WLBT) - The rain was still coming down, but Jordan Hall could hear the cries for help from under the rubble.

An EF-4 tornado had just torn through the Mississippi Delta town of Rolling Fork, and it would be a little while before first responders arrived on the scene.

But as a storm chaser, the Oklahoma native and former firefighter was already there, and like other storm chasers that descended on the town of fewer than 2,000 people that night, he jumped into action.

“We went running through the damage, just north to Mulberry Street, and where the closest cries were to us. And we ended up pulling a family out – a husband, a wife, and a granddaughter,” he said. “And it turns out that was the chief of police of Rolling Fork.”

Chief Michael Myles says he had just gotten out of what was left of his house to find a pair of shoes when he saw Hall running up the street, asking if people needed help. He says he and Hall went back to the home and pulled his wife and granddaughter out of the bathroom.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Myles said. “It was like a dream.”

After that, Hall and other chasers formed a “human chain” to help pull an elderly woman from under what was left of her home.

“The whole roof was on top of her and the only thing that was holding that roof up was her walker in front of her sofa,” Hall said. “Her room for survival, the only room for survival in that entire house, was the walker and La-Z-Boy that she was sitting right in front of.”

Residents survey damage at what is believed to be the home of the Rolling Fork police chief.
Residents survey damage at what is believed to be the home of the Rolling Fork police chief.(WLBT)

On the night of Friday, March 24, seven tornadoes touched down in Mississippi, including an EF-4 tornado that ripped through Rolling Fork and Silver City.

Both towns were devastated, something chasers likely realized even before the storm completely passed.

“It wasn’t just a small part of town that was hit,” Storm Chaser Stephen Jones said. “This tornado legitimately went through downtown Rolling Fork, and it hit square center.”

Preliminary data from the National Weather Service (NWS) showed the Rolling Fork/Silver City tornado was three-quarters of a mile wide at its peak and had maximum winds of 170 miles per hour.

The storm flattened almost everything along U.S. Highway 61, as well as much of the downtown corridor.

Along E. China Street, several historic buildings were still standing, but severely damaged. At the Sam Sing & Company Building, for instance, a Coca-Cola machine had been tossed into what was one of the store’s plate-glass windows. The store’s other plate-glass windows had been blown out and many items inside had been strewn about by the high winds.

The tornado was less kind to the building next to it, which was partially demolished.

A tornado that ripped through Rolling Fork on Friday tossed this Coke Machine through the front...
A tornado that ripped through Rolling Fork on Friday tossed this Coke Machine through the front window of a store on E. China Street.(WLBT)

“Everything in town saw some kind of damage,” Jones said. “We were walking by what would be the police station, what would be the fire station, and we could see complete devastation.”

He had little time to focus on that damage, though, transitioning into search-and-rescue mode until first responders could arrive.

“We were there roughly... 30 to 45 minutes before first responders, actual first responders, were able to actually get into town,” Jones recalled. “For the longest time, storm chasers were really the only people inside the town that could render any kind of aid at all.”

He said he helped out for several hours, going door-to-door to check on victims. “You’re walking through an entire town, helping people, lifting hundreds of pounds at a time,” he said. “Of course, my body at the end of it felt like I got hit by a truck... we were in that town... up until one or two o’clock in the morning.”

Jones has been fascinated by storms since he was a kid. In college, he studied meteorology and went to the National Weather Service to become a SKYWARN spotter.

Today, he says the field-level data he and other spotters provide to the NWS during and immediately after storms help save lives. Their work is funded by selling footage of the storms, which they say also can raise awareness about the severity of the storms they chase, even among chasers.

“That is something I don’t think a lot of people will really take into account when they’re going to go out there to look at tornadoes, as to what they, the tornadoes can actually do to some of these communities and what they can do to you as well,” said Hall.

But the work does mean significant personal sacrifice. Chasers are often away from home for weeks at a time, traveling across the country to seek out the next front.

“In 2022, I did over 110,000 miles, stretching from Puerto Rico for Hurricane Fiona [to]Hurricane Ian in Florida, all the way up to chasing supercells in eastern Montana,” Hall said. “I think I knocked out 42 states that I chased storms in last year.”

Those trips don’t always pay off. “I would say out of every 10 storms chases I go out [on] that have tornado potential, I might see a tornado on three,” Hall said.

Other times, chasers not only witness the storm, but the aftermath.

Hall says the damage sustained in Rolling Fork is some of the worst he’s seen, comparable to quad-state tornado that leveled Mayfield, Kentucky in December 2021.

“Obviously, Mayfield was a bigger city than Rolling Fork, but I have seen some damage indicators, in my opinion, that I think [are] a little worse,” he said.

“The fact that a lot of your big trees that have probably been there hundreds of years are just stripped of their bark, completely debarked. Lots of vehicles are completely unrecognizable... It wasn’t just ripped apart like [what you’d think] most tornadoes would do. But there was a lot of shredding involved.”

The Mississippi Forestry Commission says approximately 75 forested acres in Sharkey County were damaged. That likely doesn’t include the hundreds of trees in town that were left twisted, mangled or uprooted among the rubble.

Trees damaged by countyTotal forested acresEstimated timber value

Approximately 1,900 homes were damaged or destroyed, including 255 homes in Sharkey County, and 21 people were killed, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

The devastation and human cost aside, Jones takes solace in the fact the information he collects could ultimately help NWS and make future storms less deadly.

“That is kind of why we chase, why we’re out there, why I’ve been fascinated with storms my entire life,” Jones said, “to figure [them] out and to help people and help the general public.”

WLBT News Anchor Patrice Clark contributed to this story.

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