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Tornado in Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Aired February 10, 2013 - 19:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Don Lemon. Let's get you up to some speed on the stories that are making news this hour.

Also I should tell you that we are first going to be following some breaking news, severe weather that we're following in the south.

Tom Sater, our CNN meteorologist is here.

Tom, this is really alarming. We've seen a photo of a funnel cloud on the ground in Hattiesburg. What can you tell us?

TOM SATER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, we're learning this all in the last minute. We knew there was going to be severe weather. We've been watching the second system now that moves eastward. The first one, of course, the record snow up in the northeast.

This one stretches from the Deep South to the Canadian border. We knew there was severe weather. Tornado watches were placed into effect hours ago and now we're actually starting to see warnings that actually were occurring a few hours ago but now they're producing images like this. This coming in of course to our newsroom moments ago.

We actually have three photographs. This is in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, area. Easily you can detect that's a tornado, and goes hand in hand with our Doppler radar images and with the National Weather Service is telling us.

At this time, if you look at those image, in parts of Mississippi right now, Forest County and Jones County, these storms are moving to the east-northeast a good 40, 45 miles per hour. You're under a tornado warning. And again it's in southwest Alabama, Choctaw County, Clark County, Washington County. We have as many as four warnings.

Previous hour or two we've had as many four or five warnings, nothing materializing from that but now we're getting damage reports. And when you have images like this that can come to you in a moment's notice, you know it's real. The system is going to continue to almost strike fear in many residents of the Deep South into the overnight period because this system continues to churn.

Now, this is just one image. Let me show you the radar picture here. This is the southern edge of the frontal system that actually stretches all the way up to where blizzard warnings are in effect for areas of the upper Midwest. Eventually this is all going to move to the same area that was hit, of course, with, you know, one, two, even three feet of snowfall. That's a flood concern.

But as we go a little bit further into time here and we can get just a little bit closer. These tornado watch boxes will eventually elapse but they will most likely continue to the east and to the northeast. Again now this one just for a few moments more, but again we're starting to find these thunderstorm cells produce this -- this turbulence. Of course, they're getting this vorticity and we're getting the drops of the tornadoes.

Again this is a big concern. Now as we get to even a little bit closer, the one that we've been watching is near the Hattiesburg area. It has been lifting now slightly to the north but there have been cells in advance of the system that also have also given the National Weather Service the reason for producing some tornado warnings and dropping those notices throughout the area.

Southwest Alabama again as mentioned, that again would be Choctaw, Clark and Washington counties. As we continue to watch this system -- I mean as we mentioned it goes all the way to the north where the blizzard conditions are in effect. And we've got wide out conditions now of snow moving to the north. You can see where the effects are in fact, now we've got freezing rain advisories that include areas from around just north of New York City where winter storm advisories are now in effect for areas that already had been hit hard and pounded with the snow.

Of course, you get the freezing overnight. It could start out as some additional snowfall again and then this will change over to rain and flooding is going to be a big problem here. This obviously though is just one of several stories. The immediate threat is the severe weather that we're finding and, of course, with the reports of damage.

So Brianna, we're going to continue to monitor the situation, check in with some of the local folks that have live down in the Hattiesburg area. Again, three photographs coming to us already, checking in with the National Weather Service.

But our threat, again, continues for our Sunday early evening. This will be extended and could include the metro Atlanta area for the overnight period and that's the frightening part, really it's the overnight hours when you just can't see the funnels dropping down.

KEILAR: That's right, Tom. And we'll be keeping an eye obviously on this.

SATER: Right.

KEILAR: And the other thing is I should say we're waiting to hear from a Hattiesburg resident who can tell us sort of more about the situation on the ground. We're going to take a look at some of the photos Tom that we have seen coming in here. And also if you can just talk a little bit about whether we were expecting -- well, first off, describe what you're seeing here and can you have any sense really of how close this is and how alarming this is, especially as you mentioned before that we see night starting almost to fall.

SATER: Right. You know, this is just a couple of hours before sunset and of course, which would be occurring there shortly. Obviously, this is probably a quarter mile in distance. Most likely this -- whoever took this picture could have taken it from the northeast side as it probably is moving -- I'm just guessing here -- left to right across your screen.

But obviously you can see this is a parking lot. And we don't know what is in the distance. Obviously there are roads and the lights as you see there, but this is one of three images that we've received and these are not from the same person. We know the warnings have been in effect. We were expecting that, of course, with tornado watches in effect that we would have thunderstorms and the possibility of isolated tornadoes. And that's what's occurring now.

And again, I cannot mention enough that our threat area will be with us for some time and we knew the threat was with us. This was placed by the National Weather Service. We were alerted to the fact that tornadoes were a possibility. Again, we had them just a -- just a few weeks ago and of course with two fatalities; the first two fatalities that the U.S. had seen since last June. It was the longest stretch that we had ever gone in weather records without a tornado- related fatality. But we had it with the last batch.

So yes, we can have them this time of year and obviously we do. Numerous lightning strikes; one to two inches of rain per hour and localized flash flooding but obviously the concern is the tornado --

KEILAR: Obviously the concern is especially with that very scary photo that we're seeing. Tom Sater we'll be checking back in with you.

But I want to get now to Sara Lawrence. She is a resident of Hattiesburg. She's on the phone with me now.

Sara, we've seen a photo of a funnel cloud very close to what looks like a very populated area of Hattiesburg. What can you tell us about what you know of what's happened there on the ground?

SARA LAWRENCE, HATTIESBURG RESIDENT (via telephone): Well, I live near Oak Grove Road and as far as I know on Oak Grove, that's the street that the tornado went down and it -- there are a couple buildings with no roofs and I know one of one of them is a hair salon and that's as far as I know that one went down Oak Grove and then another one went on USM's campus. I don't know if it was the same one before it.

KEILAR: Another -- another tornado or possibly the same went on what is the campus?

LAWRENCE: USM's campus.

KEILAR: And can you -- can you tell us a little bit about -- Oak Grove Road is obviously an area with a lot of stores, houses? LAWRENCE: Yes. Oak Grove is on one side of the road is mostly houses and then on the other side of the road starts all the businesses and then you've got 98 on the other side of the businesses. So it's parallel to 98.

KEILAR: Did you feel that people got a sense that this was coming, that there was enough notice, or are you concerned that there may be injuries?

LAWRENCE: I didn't -- I didn't feel like there was much notice. I had -- I heard the sirens and everything looked ok outside so I started making preparations to go into the bathroom and then next thing I know I -- all the lights went out and it got dark outside and I ran to the bathroom and I could hear all the noise outside.

But it was really just a matter of within seconds everything changed.

KEILAR: So this was -- this was at your house?

LAWRENCE: It was on the next street over on Oak Grove.

KEILAR: And so can you describe the noise that you were hearing, Sara?

LAWRENCE: I'm sorry, what was that?

KEILAR: Can you describe the noise that you were hearing?

LAWRENCE: It was just really loud. It sounded like stuff being thrown like really heavy winds and everything. And it's just -- it was quiet before that and so that's what kind of freaked me out, but it was just like really strong winds like something was being thrown around almost by the wind.

KEILAR: All right Sara, stand by with us just for a moment. We want to take a look and listen, stay on the line with me, but we're going to take a look and listen to some new YouTube video of this tornado that we just have in.


RONALD GRANT, HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI: Check this out. It's Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My name is Ronald Grant and check this out. It's happening right outside my hotel. Look at that. Look at all that damage, dude. Oh, snap.


KEILAR: So Sara, I don't know if you were able to hear that, but we're -- we're -- we're hearing the voice of a man who is looking at the tornado, which is coming very close, and I imagine this might be going down the very road that you were discussing. Tell us a little bit more about the area where this -- where this tornado touched down.

LAWRENCE: We're in the west side -- we're on the west side of Hattiesburg near the mall, Turtle Creek Mall. It's the side of Hattiesburg where Hardy Street turns into 98 and so there are tons of businesses, tons of houses. It's about a middle class area for as far as homes and families.

KEILAR: Were you expecting this? Did you have any idea that this weather might be heading toward you?

LAWRENCE: I mean, I knew we were going to have bad weather as of this morning, but I didn't -- I didn't know anything about tornadoes.

KEILAR: Have you had any experience with them before in Hattiesburg?

LAWRENCE: No. I'm kind of terrified of them.


LAWRENCE: To be honest.

KEILAR: Yes are you a long time, you're a long-time resident of the city?

LAWRENCE: No. I have been here for about a year and a half now. I'm a grad student.

KEILAR: And tell us a little bit more about the hair salon that you saw there on Oak Grove Road I think you said it was.

LAWRENCE: Yes. There's a hair salon on Oak Grove Road called Mayfair Hair Salon and the roof is off of that building and the roof is off of some other -- at least one other building over there. So it went through. It just went down Oak Grove, and it went over a Corner Market, but it didn't do any damage to the Corner Market, but it cut power out all on the west side of Hattiesburg.

KEILAR: Well certainly if it's cut power out obviously to the area -- to a number of areas there in the city.

Again, Sara, stand by with us. We're going to listen to this video in its entirety, this YouTube video of this tornado touching down in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.


GRANT: This is insane. That's insane. Oh, snap.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right over Hattiesburg, Mississippi, man.

GRANT: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were told in their cars -- (inaudible)

GRANT: Oh snap.

Whoa, whoa.

Check this out. This is Hattiesburg, Mississippi.


KEILAR: You are watching home video of a tornado touching down in southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. This is a tornado that has cut out power as we understand it to the western side of town, has done some damage. We just heard from a witness there on the ground that a hair salon at least has suffered some major damage.

We are not sure right now what the totality of that damage is, what injuries may be at this point, but these are obviously very dramatic pictures of a powerful tornado cutting through what appears to be a populated part of this city.

We are following this here at CNN. We have our folks in the CNN Weather Center taking a look at this.

Our meteorologist Tom Sater, is here with details on this. And this isn't the only place of concern, right, Tom? There are some other areas to be worried about.

SATER: Well the entire region of southern Mississippi and the Southwest, Alabama -- it's going to continue to move eastward. What we're knowing now -- learning now that we do have a few more counties that are added to, of course, our warning concern and that is Wilcox and Monroe in areas of southwest Alabama.

There was a possible tornado it was about 14 miles northwest of Monroeville. This thunderstorm was moving a good 50 miles per hour, also a thunderstorm south of Grove Hill.

If you know and live in those areas, this is a concern in Alabama right now as we're going to find these thunderstorms developing and moving rapidly eastward. They're moving out as fast as 50 miles an hour, even reports of as much as 55. Doppler radar of course not only indicating circulation, but this is our visual proof.

By looking at this and of course, the National Weather Service will go back to inspect this damage. This could be a very strong EF- 2, possibly a weaker EF-3. That's what we had just a short time ago, the last episode that moved through in the end of January. So it's not unusual, but it is unusual to get these size storms. Remember we can have tornadoes anytime of the year and we've had them, of course, in January and February.

The most -- my concern is this, as we take a look -- let me show you the radar picture here. Jackson, Mississippi, you're actually in the clear all the way southward to areas of Gulfport. Mobile, you're ok, it's this band now from Birmingham southward. Birmingham, I think you're going to be fine. You're going to have heavy rain and obviously maybe some thunderstorms, but we get in a little closer with this, the concern is now going to move to areas of Montgomery, Alabama. It's going to move in toward Columbus, Georgia, Lagrange, Valdosta.

Most likely to stay in the south of Metro Atlanta area it doesn't mean you're not going to have thunderstorms. But these watch boxes will most likely continue. They're not sliding to the east-northeast. They're just almost making their way eastward which tells me that we've got a lot of upper level support. When a thunderstorm builds it's like taking a can of soda and shaking it up. When the top of those clouds reached that jet stream it's like popping that can of soda and that's where it gets its force and therefore, we're finding, of course, the vorticity coming out at the end of the back of some of these thunderstorms cells.

So for the most part as you see this movement, again 50 miles per hour, they're moving through very quickly, but the damage can be real as we have seen in these pictures. So again, areas from around Hattiesburg eastward and this includes now southwest Alabama, most likely the National Weather Service will expand their watch that will include central and eastern parts most likely of Alabama and most likely getting into western areas of Georgia. This is going to continue for the overnight period, so we cannot stress enough how you're going to have to monitor this.

And the worst thing you want to find yourself is in darkness and we've got tornado warnings. So listen for the sirens, monitor this on a local level. But again Brianna this is going to continue I think for a few more hours. The back edge of this and we're starting to see it break up a few isolated thunderstorms up to the north getting in now to areas of southeastern Arkansas, but our concern is mainly here in the Deep South -- the areas of Mississippi, Alabama and moving into Georgia.

KEILAR: Ok, Tom, stay with me because we've got Robert Latham of Mississippi Emergency Management on the phone.

Robert, if you can talk to me a little bit about some of these amazing pictures that we have seen. They're very alarming I will say. What can you tell us? This is obviously a populated area and there are concerns, of course, that there may be injuries. What can you tell us?

ROBERT LATHAM, DIRECTOR, MISSISSIPPI EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (via telephone): Well the tornado obviously I mean, we had spotters on the ground that said it was a large wedge tornado.

KEILAR: But it was -- sorry, it was a what?

LATHAM: A large wedge tornado.

KEILAR: Ok. And what does that mean to the layperson?

LATHAM: What I mean that's it's kind of like an inverted triangle and it was obviously smaller at the ground but much larger it goes up. It started first reports of damage came in from Lamar County which is the county just west of Forest County which is where Hattiesburg, Mississippi is.

We also have the university in Forest County, the University of Southern Mississippi. The reports that we have now after talking to the EMA Director in Lamar County are that we have several subdivisions with significant damage. Some areas they're not able to get to because they're still trying to cut through the debris. They're trying to account for everyone that's in the subdivision.

We've got reports of significant damage in the city of Hattiesburg on Highway 98 which is also Hardy Street that runs through the middle of Hattiesburg and right by the University of Southern Mississippi -- obviously significant damage in those areas.

The Governor, I just talked with him and briefed him, he's in the process of executing a state of emergency. We're preparing to deploy state assets including a forward command center as well as search and rescue teams to assist local governments in accounting for individuals that are missing or may be trapped because we think there are some; also getting prepared to send state assets from the very state agencies, set up shelters. But right now the most important thing for us is to make sure that we account for all individuals and make sure that they're safe and secure.

KEILAR: And also I understand that there is a high school that may be damaged. Do you know anything about that?

LATHAM: I have not received that report yet. I know that the EMA director right now is pretty busy and they're trying just to get their arms around to the significance of the damage but it's obviously a pretty wide area. Would not doubt we probably have some schools that have been impacted in that area because it's a very populated area. A lot of businesses in that area; it's where the growth from Hattiesburg has extended. So there's a pretty large, densely populated with businesses as well as residences in that area.

KEILAR: How, Robert, prepared are these areas for tornadoes?

LATHAM: Well, you know, unfortunately, we can -- most important thing is that as far as government, we've done everything we can possibly do since Hurricane Katrina to make sure government is prepared to respond. You know, we felt like that we had the warnings we needed. National Weather Service has been issuing warnings all day. We had a lot of warnings in the central part of the state around the Jackson area but then they started to pop up with these isolated cells south of Jackson in the southern part of the state.

So I mean there was plenty of warning. Unfortunately, if you get hit by one of these large tornadoes, it's just really, really tough. We spent a lot of money on preparedness, public education, safe rooms and those kind of things so I hope to goodness that when all this is said all we have to do is clean up a mess and that we haven't lost any lives in this.

KEILAR: What is the process for emergency managers trying to get a sense of what the damage is? As you said, that's really the phase that this is in. Are they out there on the road?

LATHAM: Yes --

KEILAR: Going through these subdivisions. LATHAM: -- emergency managers, you know, it's a coordinating game so you have your fire departments, your police departments, your sheriff's departments, your EMS that are all working together to get into these areas first and foremost to make sure they rescue people that may be trapped in their homes. And then to account for everyone to make sure that if somebody was at home we can account for them. If they were not, find out where they were.

That's the most important -- one of the most important things that we learned in Hurricane Katrina is accountability and so that we're making sure we can account for everyone that's there.

KEILAR: Ok. Robert, stay with me for just a moment --


KEILAR: but I do want to bring a new picture that we have from Twitter. We're following on Twitter various pictures. This, as I understand it, and I'm not sure Robert if you can see this. If you can, let me know, but this is a football field where you can see some of the tremendous damage. It's hard to even tell what that is. It looks like it's a building.

Tom, do you maybe have a sense of what this is? It looks like a building or some sort of structure near these football stands that have been practically demolished.

SATER: Yes, it looks like it's definitely part of a stadium, seating maybe on one side. As he mentioned, Southern Mississippi University is in that area. This could be a high school.

For the most part -- I'm not a betting man but by looking at the radar pictures, I think Mississippi may be in the clear here in about 20 minutes. The thunderstorm cells that have been racing as mentioned 50 miles per hour eastward may be losing a little bit of their punch. There's just one more cell I'm kind of concerned about and that is right on the border of Mississippi and the southwest areas of Alabama.

Other than that the concern really I think is going to shift to areas of southern Alabama, south of Montgomery. Doesn't mean Montgomery you may not be in this because you're on the northern edge, but if we can just hang in there another 20 minutes the threat is going to leave Mississippi. Unfortunately it's going to be with Alabama for a while.

Some of these thunderstorm cells, keep in mind we're losing the heat of the day, the sun is going down, they're going to have to rain themselves out. It doesn't mean we're not going to tornadoes; we may not have as many as we would have had a few hours ago like with this last one near Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

But we have one that I'm a little concerned about and it's moving on the last area -- if we can see it here -- just on the last edge of your screen here as it makes its way into the south. Some of these thunderstorms again south of Montgomery are really starting to fire up here as well. So we're going to have to wait a couple hours for that. Again, the watches may be extended to include, of course, eastern areas of southern Alabama into areas of southwestern Georgia. But, again, this is at least good news that we're going to see about possibly the threat come to an end because the tail end of this band of thunderstorms seems to be losing any of its grandiose development which is good news because we want to see this kind of rain themselves out.

Unfortunately, the largest cell, this one is moving, of course, into areas of southwest Alabama. So it's going to be something we're going to watch and, of course, with the darkness, almost the same rules apply with the heavy snow in the east. Stay off the roads, let law enforcement and first responders do their duties and get out there. Of course, they're going to be looking through debris and they may be going home to home in some cases where they find that.

KEILAR: That's right, Tom. It seems like that's really the phase that this is in right now as we heard from Robert Latham with the director of the Mississippi Emergency Management. He was talking about how their spotters -- and I'm assuming obviously some of these are the fire department, EMS, police, and they're going through those areas.

This is what I found very concerned about what he said -- and if we can bring up some of those pictures that we saw from Hattiesburg of some of the tremendous damage. So far we've seen this right here, this is a football field and this is -- we don't know where this is. We know that there's a university in the area near Hattiesburg, Southern Mississippi University. There's also obviously a high school, maybe other high schools in the area.

This is something that we found on Twitter from the area and obviously this structure here very demolished, but we understand talking to Robert Latham from Mississippi Emergency Management that there are a number of concerns here in a populated area. He said there's several subdivisions and that spotters will be going out.

You've got police, fire, EMS. They're going out, they are traveling down the roads where, of course, there is debris from any buildings that may have been destroyed, from trees that are taken down in incidents like this, and they are going to have to be going through these subdivisions and trying to get a sense of if people are injured or if they are trapped. And we understand from those emergency officials that we've spoken with that that's a very real concern at this point.

You can see looking at this video of this funnel cloud coming through Hattiesburg, Mississippi picking up debris, tearing through a populated area which we understand consists of businesses, consists of residences; that there's a real concern here. Even though people knew that they were potentially getting some bad weather, obviously this is a situation that develops rather quickly and certainly came through with a lot of force.

We're going to continue to monitor this and we'll be looking at a number of other areas as well. Not just in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but what's really a large weather system throughout the area, throughout the south.

We heard from a woman, Sara Lawrence, a resident of the area, that they understood that there was going to be some bad weather. She's a grad student there at Southern Mississippi University. And she said that certainly this was something that has been very terrifying for her, and you can hear that as well -- if we can take the sound full of this YouTube video of this man who is shooting this home video.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's happening right outside my hotel. Look at that. Look at all that damage, dude. Oh, snap. Oh. Oh, snap. Dude, that's insane. That's insane.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An 18-wheeler, man.





KEILAR: Let's go now on the phone I have got a storm chaser, John Sibley. Who are you with, Live Storms Now, is that right?

JOHN SIBLEY, LIVESTORMSNOW.COM (via telephone): Hi, I'm with

KEILAR: Tell -- were you able to see this tornado?

SIBLEY: Yes, I was. I picked it up originally as the storm came out of Marion County. There were reports of injuries as well as structures being destroyed in the central part of the county. I pretty much picked it up about five miles to the west of western Hattiesburg. And then the storm basically continued parallel east of 98 -- excuse me, parallel with 98 to the east. Once it crossed over I-59, it turned more towards the north tracking east-northeast. At that point it crossed Highway 98 or what used to be Highway 98 where it changes to Hardy Street, and it struck the University of Southern Mississippi head on.

There is significant damage to the campus as well as surrounding structures. I had tweeted out a picture of a large wedge tornado when it was crossing the road earlier. Directly in front of me is an apartment building. The windows on the south side of the building are blown in. The windows on the north side are blown out. There's also a music studio across the street that's been destroyed as well as a bank that lost its roof.

KEILAR: So tell me a little bit -- we, John, have been looking at a picture of a high school which we now know is Oak Grove High School. I mean thankfully it's a Sunday. That's obviously the good news here. But what can you tell us -- can you see our air, John?

SIBLEY: Unfortunately, I can't. From what I can tell you from you what the fire chief has told me, the high school did receive a significant direct hit. It's obvious the students will not be able to attend school tomorrow. But the good news is because it was Sunday at 5:00 no one was on the campus.

KEILAR: So to talk to me a little bit about the impact that this is having in the area, even places that weren't directly hit by this. You're looking at a tremendous loss of power as well.

SIBLEY: Yes. There's a significant loss of property, especially in the area just to my left -- I'm sitting here in a Quick Stop gas station. The pumps were destroyed. They're completely knocked over. Fire crews came out and immediately shut those off. The roof is gone.

To my right there's actually a Toyota Tundra sitting in the middle of the road. All the windows have been blown out and the telephone pole that was on the other side of the street is now on top of the Tundra. The driver was injured. She has been transported to a local hospital.

We're also hearing from fire officials that there are people still trapped from refrigerators and appliances from where they tried to hide in a back corner of a home or an apartment and the appliance fell on top of them. There's currently rescue efforts to free several people that are trapped from being -- from having trees fall on them.

KEILAR: What time did this come through, John?

SIBLEY: This tornado came through just after 5:00 p.m. Luckily because it's later in the year, it wasn't dark early unlike Mobile back on Christmas where it got dark at 5:00. The sun went down here at about 5:45 and you could definitely see the tornado all the way through for about five miles in all directions.

KEILAR: So how long do you -- do you have a sense of how long even just a range, I'm not asking you to be scientific necessarily about it, but how many minutes this may have been on the ground?

SIBLEY: It was on the ground from when we picked it up in Marion County. That was about 45 minutes before it got to Hattiesburg. They had significant warnings from the National Weather Service in Jackson. I have to give them a round of applause, because they had warning after warning letting people know that this was a large tornado that was coming through their area.

Also the local police and fire department were out blocking traffic to try and stop traffic because if someone was on their phone or just not paying attention, they would have driven right into it.

KEILAR: And how much warning did people in the area get that this was heading their way, John? Do you know? SIBLEY: I would say there was a significant warning because the sirens in Hattiesburg were going off, the talking sirens at the college campus were telling everyone there's a tornado emergency, seek shelter immediately.

KEILAR: Now, you are a storm chaser, so you go after these things, and I'm sure you have seen a number of tornadoes.


KEILAR: How does this one compare to some of the ones that you have seen, and in particular how rare is it for it to be near a populated area like we see in the pictures that we're looking at?

SIBLEY: It's not really that rare. The tornadoes really don't pick where they're going to go. When the tornado hit downtown Mobile on Christmas Day, there were tornadoes on the northern part of the county, there were tornadoes in the southern part of the county and then it went through the center part of the county which is where the city of Mobile is.

Also in 2008 you have the tornado that hit Atlanta. I storm chased that one. That was actually about midway through my storm chasing career. But there's really no discretion. The tornadoes don't really pick let's go for this city or let's go for this town versus let's go for this open field. It's just a coin toss if it hits something.

I will say this is one of the larger tornadoes I have seen for the south. You generally don't have large hail and destructive tornadoes here in the south, especially south of i-20. You see that more up in the north Georgia mountains and northern Alabama. But for there to be this large of a tornado come through southern Mississippi and according to the radar continue to track into Alabama, the National Weather Service is going to be taking the scientific data apart for sure.

KEILAR: This is, maybe, this is, perhaps an extraordinary event that we are watching unfold here on some Youtube video posted by someone in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Do you have a sense -- I mean, in your experience what types -- this is what's going on as we know right now, John. We know that there are emergency services, fire department, police, they will be going through some subdivisions. We understand there are a number that may be endangered here. What are they doing and how are they even able to traverse the area? What are their obstacles?

SIBLEY: The obstacles they're having right now is the fire marshal is going through and shutting off the gas to all the businesses. And then they're also going through shutting off gas to the local businesses -- or excuse me, local residences. There's also EMS crews, I'm sure you can hear as another ambulance goes by as they have to traverse this entire damage area. The damage area from east to west is roughly five blocks. So about three-quarters of a mile. I'm looking around really, really trying to give you a better sense of what's going on. The rain has for the most part let up for the evening, but you have signs down. You have power lines down. The power poles are snapped. There's debris all over the place. There are cars in the middle of the road. There are cars upside down. Like I said, this Toyota Tundra that's in front of me has a power pole through it and it's hung up on the center median.

KEILAR: Obviously, some tremendous damage that you're witnessing there in the Hattiesburg area. Stand by for us for just a moment. John Sibley, storm chaser. We will be back to you in just a moment. But first I want to bring in our CNN meteorologist Tom Sater. You are keeping an eye on this. This sounds according to what we're hearing from John there, and do we really get a true sense now, Tom of just maybe how extraordinary this tornado may be or is that something that is -- that will be determined later?

TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yeah. That's a great question, Brianna. I think the one word and term that I heard, of course, from the emergency response personnel that - he was on the phone, he said a wedge tornado. To give you just a crude explanation, a wedge tornado just has a very, very large base. The bottom of the storm cloud is closer to the ground so the funnel does not have far to go to drop. So, therefore, it's not your typical tornado that you would see that comes down to a point and touches the ground. Obviously a wedge tornado covers a greater distance.

Actually gives you a larger area, a pattern of damage. And therefore, you see the debris where the winds could be extraordinary and do damage such as we've heard in the high school and other areas in the community. I want to show you this radar picture. You see at the bottom of your screen, I want to blow this up for you, because just moments ago we had as many as eight tornado warnings and now we're down to six. Let's see, there's one, two, three, four, five, six.

Now, in Mississippi the law enforcement and first arrivers, and, of course, with the respondents in Hattiesburg may have to put up with some blinding rainfall. The back edge of the thunderstorm just started to develop a little bit, but I don't think it's going to develop a tornado. My concern still is if you look at the colors of red and, again, it's right on the border of Mississippi and Alabama.

Moments ago we had another warning, and notice the red color of cells. There are a number of cells in this box. This was an area of concern that actually was dropped, but what's happening here is each one of these thunderstorm cells when I first read the initial report that they're racing eastward instead of a northeast fashion, you can see how the National Weather Service creates a box in kind of a flanking movement to the north-northwest, or north-northeast. It gives the variety of movement here, but these are generally moving in an easterly direction. So we're getting what's called training. It's like box cars of a train. One cell after another, and each one of these have the potential maybe to produce a tornado, but more importantly they're also producing one to two inches per cell. So, this entire area is now under flood warnings as we're finding, of course, the runoff create some problems as well. But again, as we continue to watch this, just a couple of things are going to happen I think. I think we're going to see once this last cell leaves Mississippi, that will be good news. It doesn't mean you are not going to have some heavier rainfall and maybe some lightning or even some straight line damaging winds.

The concern now, and if you were with us just a little while ago, I mentioned Monroeville to the northwest, and, therefore, the National Weather Service where you see Thomasville, that includes that area, of course, the tornado warning, but I wouldn't be surprised if we had another one actually form with those cells, those four that are in a row as they move toward, of course, into eastern areas, southeastern areas of Alabama into Georgia. But the number of warnings, some are being dropped, some are being added. So the event continues, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Tom. Thank you very much. And we'll be right back with you. First, though, I just want to recap for our viewers what we are following. This is severe weather in the south, specifically we're talking about a tornado that was on the ground for miles in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, there in southern Mississippi. There are reports of injuries. There are concerns about people trapped in homes, maybe businesses. Rescue workers, as we speak, are trying to assess the damage, no doubt going home to home, through businesses. This is a populated area in southern Mississippi. We understand that a high school there, Oak Grove High School, suffered a direct hit. Thankfully, of course, on a Sunday evening without students there or we would expect not there.

We have heard reports from a storm chaser that there are cars strewn about, cars upside down, roofs off businesses. We heard that from one woman in the area, and there are several subdivisions and a university that were there in the path of this tornado as rescue workers try to get a sense of what the damage is. We will be following this and we'll be right back in just a moment with more.


KEILAR: We are monitoring severe weather in the South, specifically we're following a tornado that was confirmed on the ground in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. You're seeing video of it here that we've seen on Youtube. This is a man who said that he's looking just outside of his hotel through Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and he sees this sight sort of coming towards him. This is in Marion County. We understand there is significant damage to the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. You may know it as Southern Miss. We know that there are at least three people who are reported hurt. We are working our sources to learn if more people are injured. This is very much in the assessment phase as rescue workers are trying to figure out just how much damage is done. Of course, this is a populated area with a number of residences and businesses, so that's very much a concern. Let's listen to this video.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whoo! Whoo! Check this out.


KEILAR: So this as we understand it is looking from Hattiesburg to the western side of Hattiesburg. Jenny, correct me if I'm wrong about that. Hattiesburg is in Forrest County, and this is looking towards where the concerns of the more serious damage would be in Marion County, which is to the west of town. We will tell you if we can bring this up, we have a photo of Oak Grove high school. This is a high school that has suffered a direct hit, keeping in mind this is a Sunday evening, so obviously that is in a way maybe some more positive news.

You're seeing here -- this appears to be the baseball diamond I think is what we're seeing. This is a car that has obviously been moved. I think it's flipped upside down. It's kind of difficult for me to see. But this is actually on its side. This is a high school that actually Brett Favre is the offensive coordinator of. This is an area where he actually still has a residence. He's from a nearby area, went to Southern Miss University, which was in the path of this tornado. He still lives in the area, so that's something that sort of puts this high school on the map.

Obviously, though, as we mentioned, this happened in the evening on a Sunday, but this safe to say means that students there at Oak Grove high school will not be going to class tomorrow as usual, and the concern really at this point in Hattiesburg, west of Hattiesburg, is for a number of subdivisions as well as the university, Southern Miss, that were potentially in the path of that tornado that actually was rather large as we understand it, and was tracking along the ground for miles. So at this point, we have rescue workers who are still trying to get an assessment of just how bad the damage is.

We spoke a short time ago with the storm chaser who has seen a number of these storms, including the one in Mobile, including the one a couple years ago in downtown Atlanta, and he said that there are reports of people who have been trapped, which is somewhat standard in these situations. As they have tried to shelter from the storm, they've been trapped by large items in their house, and this is the thing. House by house, perhaps business by business, that you have rescue workers contending with -- and don't forget, of course, as well -- don't forget as well that you have night falling.

Let's get now to John Sibley. He is a storm chaser in the area. John, what are the concerns now? And just tell us where you are, actually, and tell us what you're seeing.

SIBLEY: Good evening, Brianna. I'm on the western edge of the university of - excuse me, Southern Mississippi. I'm looking directly to my east. It's pretty much ground zero, where the tornado crossed through downtown Hattiesburg. And I'm starting to notice more and more relief crews arriving. We have had more county fire departments show up. The city is going pretty much in full response mode right now. Rescue two is here as well as rescue three. The state fire marshal has just arrived as well.

KEILAR: So you're seeing emergency responders from a number of jurisdictions. They're coming from other counties, is that right?

SIBLEY: I have seen with local county -- where am I? Hattiesburg is in -- KEILAR: In Forrest County, right?

SIBLEY: Forrest County, Forrest County fire rescue is here. Hattiesburg fire rescue, as well as Lamar. They just arrived as well. What the police have done is they've cordoned off as much as they could the local area. The local traffic is having to divert through neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are damaged as well, so they're trying to get the debris cleared so they can at least get traffic moving.

KEILAR: So when you say they're trying--

SIBLEY: Behind me, out on Highway 98, towards the west, it's two lanes backed up for at least several miles.

KEILAR: So when you say they're trying to get the debris clear, describe the road that you're talking about and describe the debris that is on it.

SIBLEY: The local streets are all two-lane neighborhoods. There's roofs, roofing material, pardon me, there's also power lines. There's unsecured objects. Toys, sheet metal -- basically stuff people leave in their yards that have been blown out in the road, and the emergency crews are having to go through and secure all that and try and make sure that obviously they don't want a board with nails in it and five people getting a flat tire running over it.

KEILAR: Sure. So right now they're cordoning off an area. Is that to sort of set a staging area?

SIBLEY: The staging area is on the western side of the campus. And they've cordoned off a good six blocks to the east. The power lines are down. There's obviously no power to the area, and there's also now a heavy police presence as they try to deter anyone that would obviously see this on television and want to come into the area to take a look.

KEILAR: OK. John, stand by with me for just a moment. We're actually getting reports of perhaps another tornado in Alabama. So stand by as we bring in Tom Sater, our meteorologist here in the CNN Weather Center who's monitoring this. Tom, what can you tell me about this new report?

SATER: Let me give you the very latest. If you live in one of the counties I'm about to mention, this is where you should be -- in the basement, an interior room. I am going to run through these because we're still finding some warnings that are popping up, but we're also losing a few more.

In Mississippi, it's Jones County. That's southeast Mississippi there, includes the city of Ellisville. As we mentioned, we're just into the heavier rain in Hattiesburg. Doesn't mean first responders aren't going to have blinding rain, but at least the threat for tornadoes has come to an end.

My big concern is still this cell here, and this seems to be the strongest cell that we have right now, near Morie (ph). This is possibly producing a tornado on the ground right now. These are racing eastward at about 50 miles per hour.

For those of you who live in Alabama, and excuse the crude fashion here, but tornado warnings in effect for north central Monroe County, that's south central Alabama, western Wilcox, northern Clark County, and, again, that's for about another half hour. And then you have got 45 minutes for southwestern Butler County, central Monroe county as well.

These are the tornado warnings that remain in effect. We lost one to the back, and that's good. We lost one that included the three large cells that were directly in a row from west to east. That means these are raining themselves out, but they're still producing one or two inches of rain, and it's on the same pattern which the others have been following. So the flood threat is still with us. One, two, three, four, five, five tornado warnings.

Another sign, Brianna, and some good news, is notice as we head to the east, you can barely take in a faint picture of the yellow boxes, almost the orange color here. Those are severe thunderstorm watches. So the threat as expected -- I thought we'd go into -- continue the threat to have at least some warnings move on -- or a tornado watch. These thunderstorm warnings are not producing the tornadoes. Doesn't mean they can't, but at least we're not seeing the continuality of the tornado warnings head toward the east.

So as we lose the daylight, we lose some of that daylight heating of course in the day, these systems will start to rain themselves out. But, again, this in the middle of your screen is the border here of course of Mississippi and Alabama. But this is the cell of great concern right now. You can see it's tiering (ph) high with of course its colors, and that means it's got great height, it's got the vorticity it needs to drop a tornado. Doesn't mean that these can't, but at least they'll let -- the National Weather Service will let them run their course and they will start to be erased from the screen here, which is always good news.

The threat back in Mississippi is coming to an end. Just one tornado that we're watching with the larger cell that you see back to the west. So slowly but surely we're going to run through this with you and keep you informed of those counties for those residents that really need to take shelter right now. Flooding is a secondary concern, but we're going to see this throughout the evening as well.

KEILAR: So, Tom, you're saying that the nightfall is actually cutting off the energy to this - these cells.

SATER: It does. On some systems it does that. Each one of these, Brianna, they have a mind of their own. Some of these super cells are almost helter-skelter fashion. Some of these thunderstorms are breaking away from this line here. I like to call them outlaw thunderstorms, renegade, breaking away from the pack, but at least as far as we're concerned, the significance of a few cells instead of numerous cells, just a few right now, are our concern. And anytime you can whittle away the number of super cell thunderstorms that are able to produce a tornado, the lesser the threat is of some damage and even harm to of course life.

KEILAR: But of course, we're also having the problem with nightfall, even if it's cutting off some energy, obviously, to the tornadoes, they don't have any light. And we heard from one of the witnesses who was there, who is a grad student at the University of Southern Mississippi. She was saying that even the areas of Hattiesburg that were not directly impacted from this don't have power, that it was cut off during the storm. What are the challenges these rescuers are facing?

SATER: Downed power lines a big concern. We talked about earlier to stay off the roads, let them do what they have to do. Obviously, emergency personnel will bring in the generators as needed. But this is a big area. You mentioned Brett Favre, the offensive coordinator at the high school that was damaged. He lives in nearby Kiln (ph). That's an area I'm sure they're looking at, because this is a widespread event. But as far as the tornado itself, not knowing of course by looking at these pictures, the expanse of the touchdown on the wedge, as we call it, not knowing the general pattern or how long it was on the ground, I mean, it's going to be a long night for law enforcement and those emergency personnel.

KEILAR : Certainly is. So we're going to keep monitoring this severe weather there in the South. We're looking at pictures right now of a tornado that was on the ground, as we understand it, at about 6:00 p.m. Eastern, we're told, by one storm chaser. So this has just happened less than a couple of hours ago. We will continue to monitor this as emergency crews are in the process right now of trying to get to people who may be injured, and that is expected because this is a populated area. There are a number of subdivisions. There's a university, as we understand it, Southern Miss, that has suffered some significant damage. Obviously, a lot of students there. A lot of people living in the area. A lot of businesses. We will keep monitoring this as we get more information, we'll bring it to you here at CNN.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Check this out. This is Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My name is Ronald Grant (ph). And check this out. This is happening right outside my hotel. Look at that. Look at all that damage, dude.


KEILAR: You are looking at pictures coming to us from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We're following severe weather in the South. A tornado on the ground there in Hattiesburg. And as we understand it, west of the city, there is also an urgent tornado threat in Alabama, specifically Millrie, Alabama, that we're following.

But let's get now to Jennifer Cole. She's on the phone with me. She's from Alabama, but she's visiting family there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Jennifer, tell me, are you seeing any damage? What part of town are you in?

JENNIFER COLE: Yeah, there's a whole bunch. Right before the -- the power went out in the house. And we were in a sort of (inaudible) area. And I think the tornado had gone right over, because it was loud like a freight train. And the suction was just so intense (inaudible). After it passed, we went outside, and, you know, trees are snapped in two, and completely uprooted all around the house. There's debris from other houses in the yard. We haven't been able to actually get out of the neighborhood. But with support from friends and neighbors nearby (inaudible) two blocks away, houses are destroyed.

KEILAR: Are you able to see any emergency services? Has fire department or EMS, police, have they been able to make it to your street yet?

COLE: We've been hearing them go by, but they haven't actually come down to the street where we are right now. We've heard there's a lot of downed power lines throughout town. We're just a block off of Hardy Street (ph), which is I believe completely shut down at this point. So just a few blocks from the University of Southern Mississippi campus.

KEILAR: Which we understand has suffered a significant amount of damage as well. Jennifer, you're talking to your neighbors. When you went, you said a couple blocks away, and there is tremendous damage. Are you able to determine if any of your neighbors need help? Are there any injuries that you're expecting?

COLE: So far everybody that we've (inaudible) seems to be OK. It seems to be just property damage. But we're just -- I think people are still trying to check in with other people. It's kind of hard with cell phones to make (inaudible).

KEILAR: So, Jennifer, you're visiting. You're from Alabama, but you're visiting family. Is that right?

COLE: Yeah. I came over for the weekend to visit my aunt and uncle and -- for Mardi Gras. I was about to head back when all of the sudden (inaudible) started coming through.

KEILAR: OK. Jennifer, I know that's certainly more than you bargained for with a trip to visit your aunt and uncle there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Stand by for just a moment. We're actually looking at some new pictures that are coming in. You can see damage to it appears some of the residences in the area there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That is in Forrest County, Mississippi. We understand as well that there are at least three people injured in nearby Marion County right next door. There, as you heard Jennifer mention, because she's just a few blocks from the University of Southern Miss, that there's a concern there. You have a number of students, obviously, attending Southern Miss. And there's also Oak Grove high school nearby, which is sort of known because Brett Favre is the offensive coordinator there. And it's tremendous damage that we've seen to the athletic fields. We've seen turned over cars in that area. Some of the pictures we've been seeing on Twitter coming to us from Randy Wright. He's a worship leader at Temple Baptist Church. Randy, that's there in Hattiesburg, I assume, yes.


KEILAR: So we're seeing the photos that you -- if we can pull those up, the photos you put out on Twitter of the school, Oak Grove high school. I see -- describe what we're seeing. This is the stands of the football field, no doubt, and we see the water tower behind it. What is that building in front of the stands that's completely demolished?

WRIGHT: It's the field house. It's the weightlifting room for the football team and some other teams.

KEILAR: And the baseball diamond, I mean, that looks like a pretty extensive (ph) athletic field for a high school, no?

WRIGHT: It's a pretty nice stadium, baseball field for sure.

KEILAR: What about the school proper? We're seeing the athletic fields here. What is -- what are the academic buildings? Have they suffered damage, or did this bypass them?

WRIGHT: There is, outside there was some minor damage. And then where the cars drop the kids off or the bus riders get dropped off, the overhang was completely removed, and then it looks like some of the roof has been damaged as well.

KEILAR: Some of the roof. So it looks like the athletic field's kind of got the brunt of it here. Were there any students there? Were there any practices going on? I imagine we're pretty lucky that this happened on a Sunday evening.

WRIGHT: There was no one in the football or the baseball facilities, but the basketball gym, it looked like the girls were having practice in there. And whenever we were outside, we heard a girl say, where's my truck? I thought she was kidding that her truck was just missing, but then when I went and looked at the baseball field, there was a truck upside down. So I'm not sure if it's hers--

KEILAR: So that's her truck in the picture we're looking at right now that's flipped over?

WRIGHT: Yes, ma'am.

KEILAR: Oh, my goodness. So -- and the basketball area where these girls were practicing, that was bypassed by the tornado?

WRIGHT: Yes, it looks like it went straight through the baseball field and then over the student parking lot.