Hattiesburg, Mississippi Tornado Kills Four on Saturday

Multiple structures damaged in downtown Hattiesburg

A deadly tornado smashed through the small United States city of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, early on Saturday morning.

The National Weather Service in Jackson has confirmed that an EF-3 tornado on Saturday struck portions of Lamar, Forrest, and Perry counties.

Officials warned of downed power lines and debris spread over large areas and urged people to avoid traveling.

In the aftermath of the storm, people were trapped in their homes and Mayor Johnny DuPree issued an emergency declaration and told reporters that a search and rescue mission is underway in the city of more than 48,000 citizens. The vast majority of those are in Forrest County, where a tornado ripped through the Hattiesburg area early morning.

The National Weather Service said three to five inches of rain have already fallen, raising the risk of flooding, and that more rain is possible.

"Search and rescue teams are being deployed to assist Forest County emergency management in the Hattiesburg area", the agency said in a statement.

"There are widespread power outages as the tornado ran across three counties lines", said Mississippi's EMA spokesman Greg Flynn. Some students reporting minor injuries.

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Most of the damage occurred on the downtown's outskirts, according to DuPree, who pointed out that a fire station as well as parts of William Carey University - a private Christian college with almost 4,000 students - were worst affected by the storms. "Officials are working to ensure students are safe and accounted for". He observed buildings that had windows blown out and were standing with water.

Photos and television images showed the intensity of the damage.

The university says students are being escorted from the Hattiesburg campus and arrangements are being made for students who can't go home.

The tornado was part of a wall of storms that knocked out power to almost 16,000 customers, mostly in Forrest County, where Hattiesburg is the county seat.

Trees and debris cover the ground after a tornado tornado ripped through the Hattiesburg, Miss., area early Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

The precipitation caused the Leaf River in Hattiesburg to rise 7.8 feet in 10 hours, according to the NWS office in Jackson, Mississippi.

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