Severe storms shattered parts of southern Mississippi early Saturday, killing at least three people in Forrest County, state Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said.
The storms also damaged buildings in the cities of Hattiesburg and Petal, including parts of a private college and a fire station, officials said.
A search and rescue operation is underway in Hattiesburg, a city of about 46,000 people, Mayor Johnny DuPree said before dawn Saturday. The damage may have been caused by a tornado, WDAM-TV reported.
Most of Hattiesburg’s damage appeared to be on the downtown’s outskirts, DuPree said. A fire station was damaged, as was parts of William Carey University, a private Christian college with about 4,000 students.
Students at William Carey were reporting minor injuries, the university said. Dormitories and other buildings were damaged, the school said.
“Officials working to ensure students are safe. Some students reporting minor injuries. Damage to dorms, Tatum Court, Thomas Hall,” the university said on Twitter.
WDAM reporters and editors posted to Twitter pictures of severe damage in Hattiesburg and the adjacent city of Petal, a community of about 10,400 people.
Parts of an AT&T store and a loan shop collapsed at a shopping center in Petal, one of the images showed.
Storms hit southern Mississippi, Alabama
Damage also was reported elsewhere in Forrest County — which includes Hattiesburg — as well as Lamar and Perry counties, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said.
Interstate 59 north of Hattiesburg was closed because of debris, said the agency, which asked the public to avoid traveling in the area because of downed power lines and other destruction.
The storms were part of a system moving through southern Mississippi and Alabama on Saturday morning.
A tornado watch was in effect for parts of Alabama through most of Saturday morning, the National Weather Service said.