- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - A tornado that tore a 31-mile path across south Mississippi over the weekend killed four people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,100 homes, state officials said Monday, as the governor assured residents that federal funds were being sought to help them recover from the widespread devastation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is promising quick consideration of a federal disaster declaration following Saturday’s tornado, said Gov. Phil Bryant.

The tornado hit Hattiesburg and Petal and surrounding areas early Saturday morning with peak winds of 145 mph and a path as wide as a half a mile. It killed four people in Hattiesburg and injured 56 people.

Assessments show other storms damaged structures in Franklin, Jones, Lauderdale, Pike and Wilkinson counties.

In Forrest County alone, which includes Hattiesburg and Petal, 411 homes were destroyed or suffered major damage Saturday, while 588 saw minor damage, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. In Lamar County, the twister destroyed or did major damage to 43 homes and minor damage to 52 homes. In Perry County, 10 homes were damaged.

The Lauderdale County damage came from a Saturday night tornado that the National Weather Service determined had winds of at least 111 mph, rating EF-2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. Ten homes suffered major damage, while nine suffered minor damage. One person was injured.

Bryant said in a Monday news conference in Hattiesburg that new U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly pledged quick action on the state’s request for federal disaster aid.

“He assured me that the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA will be leaning into this storm and leaning into recovery,” Bryant said.

The Republican governor says Kelly promised him that FEMA would send surveyors starting Wednesday who would sample the damage determinations made locally. Bryant, though, says FEMA won’t have to entirely repeat the survey.

Mississippi wants FEMA to declare the state eligible for aid to governments and individuals. The state has to show $4.2 million in damage to public facilities to win a declaration for government aid. The state has to show 250 homes destroyed or with major damage to win an individual declaration.

“We’ve met that threshold for individual assistance,” Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Lee Smithson said.

Smithson said individuals could get up to $33,000 in aid apiece under a federal declaration. Smithson warned people to seek other assistance, saying federal aid isn’t designed to restore a home to pre-storm conditions.

Bryant said the Mississippi National Guard and the state Department of Public Safety would continue to supplement local police in Hattiesburg and Petal “for security and safety.”

The University of Southern Mississippi, which was hit by a 2013 tornado, pledged support to heavily damaged William Carey University. That school held no classes on campus Monday.

William Carey spokeswoman Mia Overton said the school was focusing on using online systems to finish in-person classes for the last three weeks of the winter trimester. Overton said William Carey’s medical school is likely to offer classes in a former nursing building that USM recently vacated. She said the school is trying to find places for other classes that require laboratory work or in-person meetings. Overton said William Carey is likely to use online classes heavily in the upcoming spring trimester as well.

Overton said school officials are trying to find temporary housing for about 150 students from foreign countries or faraway states, and hope to reopen four lightly damaged dorms within 30 days.

K-12 schools were closed in Hattiesburg, Petal and parts of Forrest County, but will resume classes Tuesday.

Mississippi Power Co. and Dixie Electric Power Association reported Monday that the number of customers without power had fallen to about 1,000. They said they would restore electricity to all undamaged structures by midnight Monday.

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