LOUISVILLE, Miss. (AP) — One family Wednesday celebrated the improving health of a daughter who they once feared had been snatched away by a tornado, while another prayed that searchers would find a missing 8-year-old boy whose parents' bodies were found flung far from their home.
Loss and survival were the prevailing themes following Monday's powerful twister, which destroyed more than 300 buildings as it ripped a half-mile-wide path through Louisville, a hill country town of 6,000. Authorities began to focus on cleanup and recovery, while family members of the nine dead grieved.
Late Wednesday, President Barack Obama signed an order declaring a major disaster in the state of Mississippi, clearing the way for federal assistance. The declaration applies to areas affected by severe storms, tornadoes and flooding that struck Monday.
At the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Coysheena and Willie Mitchell said their 4-year-old daughter Ashtyn, though still in intensive care, was getting better. A firefighter found the child after the storm, cradled in the arms of a dead Ruth Bennett, who owned the child care center that Ashtyn attended.
Coysheena Mitchell said she was still trying to find a way to express her gratitude to Bennett's family.
"Thank you is not enough," she said.
The Mitchells set out after the tornado to try to retrieve their daughter, growing more alarmed as they approached the center, in a hard-hit area across the road from Winston Medical Center. They arrived to find the former building blown from its foundation and strewn across the ground.
But dread turned to joy when the Mitchells were reunited with Ashtyn at the damaged hospital.
"I said 'That's my baby right there,' and she said 'Hey, daddy,'" Mitchell recounted. "It did something to me. I wanted to cry with her."
With a broken left femur, Ashtyn has a cast on both legs and may need more surgery. She also has internal injuries. But she's no longer on a ventilator and is asking to go to her grandfather's house or the zoo.
"All she keeps telling me is she and Miss Ruth fell in the bushes and they said she had to go to the doctor," is how Coysheena Mitchell describes Ashtyn's version of events. "I don't think she can process it."
Meanwhile, searchers continued to look for the missing 8-year-old son of Terri Tucker and Sean Fowler. Winston County Coroner Scott Gregory said Tucker and Fowler were found more than half a mile from their home off Mississippi 397, thrown into an area with splintered pine trees and debris on the east side of the town.
"The area has been searched and searched again," said Buddy King, Winston County emergency management director.
What people and cadaver dogs can't find, officials hope a new GPS technology will be able to. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks deployed the technology, which allows searchers to be tracked to tell if they've missed a spot.
King said there's a chance the child was blown farther away.
"I cannot deny that's a possibility," he said.
Funeral arrangements have not been set yet for Tucker and Fowler. Bennett is supposed to be buried Saturday, along with victims Dora Triplett and Sarah Massey.
Gregory released the identities Wednesday of the nine people who died in the county. The five women and four men ranged in age from 31 to 85. Three people died elsewhere in Mississippi from traffic accidents during the tornado outbreak. Dozens of injuries were also reported for hundreds of miles stretching across the state.
Gregory said that all of the victims suffered multiple trauma, and it's hard to pinpoint a single cause of death for any.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," said Gregory, who has been the coroner since 2004.
Four of those who died were at the Eiland Plaza apartments and an adjoining subdivision on the south end of Louisville.
Laquisha Latimer said her stepfather, 60-year-old Gregory Jernigan, was a hardworking man who loved to watch movies in his spare time. "He loved to watch them over and over," she said of Jernigan, who lived in the Eiland Plaza apartment complex.
Melvin Carter said he was at home on nearby Eiland Avenue with his brother, 61-year-old Jerry Carter, when the tornado hit. Melvin Carter said his basketball-loving brother was thrown into the yard, eventually dying from injuries at University of Mississippi Medical Center.
State officials asked Obama for the disaster declaration as affected communities faced the daunting prospect of rebuilding.
The order makes federal funding available to affected residents in Itawamba, Lee, Lowndes, Madison, Rankin, Wayne, and Winston counties. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the disaster.
Federal funding also is available to state and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for debris removal and emergency work for damage in the affected counties.
Mayor Will Hill said he hoped to seek proposals within 48 hours for a contractor to monitor debris disposal. City officials also were trying to come up with alternate plans for providing medical care given that the Winston Medical Center could be out of service for as long as a year.
"Today is the day of the beginning of the rebuilding of the new normal for Louisville and Winston County," said King.
A federal disaster declaration could help pay for setting up a temporary hospital.