ROLLING FORK, Miss.— Martha Morris and James Morris did not think it would take five months after a devastating tornado hit Rolling Fork, Miss., on March 24, for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver their temporary housing unit. But that is their reality.
Still, they are not frustrated with anybody, as Martha Morris said it takes time for progress to happen.
“Progress is being made; it just takes a process, that’s all,” Martha Morris told the Mississippi Free Press on Aug. 10.
The retired couple lost their rental home and two vehicles during the storm, so they have been staying with their daughter and grandchild in a two-bedroom brick apartment in the northern part of town.
Temporary housing has been taking months to arrive in the town; some people have received their units, while others are still waiting. Mayor Eldridge Walker said private landowners got their homes first because they had space to put the units. The Morrises are scheduled to receive their mobile home when the dirt for the lot arrives, which should be soon, they told the Mississippi Free Press on Aug. 29.
The couple did not own their land before the tornado, but they recently bought the lot where their home once sat just months before. Their trailer will be on that land, and Martha Morris said she was happy to move back to her neighborhood.
The Morrises are two of about 300 people, or 16% of the Rolling Fork population, who were displaced after the tornado with 17 people killed. Sharkey County Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Natalie Perkins said 233 people were displaced as of Aug. 16. Renters have faced an especially long wait to get temporary housing because of the lack of land for non-owners.
While residents wait for their temporary homes, some are living in hotels while others are staying with family members or friends—five months after the devastating tornado that destroyed their town.
Relocating and Rebuilding
Rolling Fork sits in the western portion of the state in the rural Mississippi Delta and is the county seat of Sharkey County. Its population in the 2020 census was 1,883, and many residents say the tornado pushed people out of town. Sixty-eight percent of residents are renters.
The town’s population has dwindled, and the school district has lost students. Now, some residents have returned to live in temporary housing units, like mobile homes.
FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Darryl Dragoo said the agency is bringing about 97 fully furnished, temporary mobile homes and campers for renters and homeowners to live in for 18 months. He said the number changes slightly each day, but 97 households had requested a trailer as of Aug. 16. FEMA had delivered 36 units as of Aug. 16 to private landowners and people in commercial trailer parks.
Some units will be on a group site at 255 West Ave. or 101 East St., Dragoo said. Mayor Eldridge Walker said finding and then clearing land for the FEMA trailers have contributed to delivery delays for those who do not own land.
Dragoo said getting the units to Rolling Fork is not as simple as just “drop and go” to explain why the FEMA trailers are so slow getting to the people who need them.
“We don’t just drop a trailer and move. It is literally a mini construction site. So the same process that anybody would use to build a home, we have to go through,” he said.
Walker said FEMA has to investigate the sites to ensure they meet the criteria, work with the city for regulations and hook up utilities before the fire marshal inspects the trailer.
Samaritan’s Purse had approved 20 Rolling Fork homeowners to receive a free, permanent house, a spokesperson from the Christian humanitarian organization told the Mississippi Free Press on Aug. 18.
‘Everything’s Just Gone’
Shawonder Harris, 44, teaches algebra at the high school in Anguilla, Miss. Before the tornado, she lived five miles away from her job in the South 6th Street Rolling Fork neighborhood with her family members.
The tornado destroyed her mobile home and belongings, including birth certificates, clothes, furniture and personal mementos. Harris had only lived there for a year.
“Everything’s just gone,” she told the Mississippi Free Press.
She said the tornado destroyed about 14 houses in her family’s neighborhood.
“So now, we’re all trying to find somewhere to live,” Harris said.
The teacher decided not to rebuild her home but to move 84 miles away to Byram, Miss., with her sister and commutes to school on weekdays.
Five months after the tornado, Harris said housing is the biggest challenge the town faces because 68% of residents are renters.
“Housing is the reason we lost a lot of students in the school district,” said Harris, a school teacher. “It’s hard to stay somewhere without sufficient housing.”
Anthony White, who is a member of the Emergency Recovery Commission, said most of the people still staying in hotels are renters. The American Red Cross pays for the hotel rooms for the displaced people, some of whom are staying in rooms in Greenville, Vicksburg and Yazoo City.
“I’ve been back and forth with FEMA and some of the city officials trying to see when we’re going to get temporary housing for those people. That’s the most pressing issue because they’ve had all they can stand in those hotels, and it’s starting to wear on them mentally,” White told the Mississippi Free Press on June 21.
A new nonprofit called Rolling Fork Build Back Better is building houses for renters, Sharkey County Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Natalie Perkins mentioned, saying they were building six houses the week of June 19.
‘It’s Not Going To Be Quick’
The town had about 50 businesses before the tornado. The few that escaped damage, like the Bumpers Drive In, Stop ‘n’ Shop and the Dollar General Market along U.S. Highway 61, serve customers who remain in Rolling Fork.
“I’m rebuilding Rolling Fork” signs sit in residents’ and businesses’ lawns while piles of wood, bricks, aluminum and debris are on many of the town’s streets.
Perkins, who is also the editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot, said it will take about five to 10 years for the town to rebuild fully.
“It’s not going to be quick,” she said.
The Sharkey County EMA has been on the ground clearing up debris since the night of the tornado and working with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and FEMA to get temporary housing for Rolling Fork residents.
“We’re taking steps forward, but I think when everything’s clean and the debris is gone, we’ll all be able to start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Perkins said.
Cooper said the workers that haul the debris stay in Vicksburg and do not work when it’s stormy, and the removal process may take some time.
Six months from now, Walker said he hopes the debris will be gone, families will return, and businesses will be building back.
“Try to get some normalcy back, that’s what I hope,” he told the Mississippi Free Press.
‘Come Back Better Than Before’
Meg Cooper and Melissa Thomas are commissioners for businesses and development in Rolling Fork’s Emergency Recovery Commission. The mayor and Board of Aldermen established the commission to provide temporary help for the community through four subcommittees: housing, property and displaced families; businesses and development; volunteers; and health and human services.
Cooper said she and Thomas were “pretty shocked” to learn Rolling Fork had about 50 businesses before the storm—many more than they had thought.
They are talking with business owners to assess if the buildings were damaged or destroyed, whether the businesses plan to reopen, if they had insurance and if they applied for FEMA grants. Working alongside local officials, bigger companies and nonprofit donation organizations, Cooper and Thomas connect business owners with resources for rebuilding efforts.
“We want to get the businesses back so the people will move back,” Cooper told the Mississippi Free Press, mentioning some residents have moved out of Rolling Fork and do not plan to return.
Rolling Fork’s census showed the population had already declined from 2,143 in 2010 to 1,856 in 2021, Cooper and Thomas noted, saying the tornado did not help the town’s numbers.
“But it is a chance to rebuild ourselves and come back better than before,” Cooper told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s an opportunity as well.”
She said about 85% of businesses plan to return to the town. The local daycare has opened up in a new location in Rolling Fork, while a hair salon has moved to Anguilla.
“I think a lot of the businesses will be back and be back in Rolling Fork, especially those that owned their property,” Cooper told the Mississippi Free Press.
Some business owners expressed concerns to her about the town being able to sustain the businesses long term. She noted that many people from nearby towns like Anguilla and Cary will continue to come to Rolling Fork to shop and eat.
“Rolling Fork was just the hub. … It was where everything was,” Cooper said.
Cooper and Thomas hoped the Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital would stay in town because although it is small, it has “saved a lot of lives.” It suffered damage during the tornado and emergency responders had to help patients in a tent set up in a parking lot on March 24.
“And it was already suffering, you know, like so many small hospitals because of the Medicaid issue and all that,” Cooper said, referencing the Mississippi Legislature’s and the governor’s decision not to expand Medicaid.
The Mississippi Department of Health is giving $1.5 million to the hospital and the county nursing home, Sharon Dowdy said at its July 12 quarterly meeting.
‘Too Small to be Divided’
Carved wooden bears stand by many businesses in Rolling Fork, some damaged by the tornado. Each year, the town holds the Great Delta Bear Affair, where a European crafter carves a new bear to join the streets.
This year’s bear was for the visitor’s center and had a Las Vegas-esque sign that the tornado swept away and is nowhere to be found. The bear fell on its face and had some flaws but is repairable.
Cooper said many people called her to ask about their fate after the tornado. Only one was gone; the rest are salvageable.
Town leaders hold a visioning session every three weeks with local officials, business owners, architects and members of the community to discuss what Rolling Fork should look like as rebuilding efforts progress.
In an interview on June 19, Perkins said six houses were then being constructed, two businesses getting fixed up and some small businesses reopening in new “tiny house” buildings.
The tornado destroyed many of the city-owned buildings, like the Visitor’s Center, City Hall and the police department. Walker said the city is working with FEMA and MEMA on recovering these losses.
City Hall, the police and sheriff’s department, the tax assessor’s office, and the chancery and circuit clerks’ offices are housed in temporary trailers in downtown Rolling Fork. Walker said a contractor helped the city get the buildings and figure out what needed to be rebuilt.
“We’re too small to be divided,” Walker told the Mississippi Free Press.
Helping Each Other
Natalie Perkins said state officials told her Mississippi has not seen a natural disaster of this magnitude since Hurricane Katrina. Additionally, the Sharkey EMA and residents received little warning before the tornado touched down in Rolling Fork.
“It’s not that we were not prepared in emergency response; we were unprepared for the magnitude (of the tornado),” Perkins said.
She said the response from the local, state and federal levels “makes your heart feel good.”
“Everybody was there for everybody,” Perkins said.
Meg Cooper praised the Sharkey County EMA, saying Director Frank Eason and Deputy Director Perkins “are outstanding” and “stepped up to the plate and have done excellent.”
Mayor Walker said he was thankful for the Emergency Management Agencies’ responses and noted that “it takes time” for all of the resources to come in.
He mentioned that the city has a donations-based, short-term recovery fund to assist displaced families.
Perkins said that despite rumors, the tornado siren did work the night of the tornado. It was damaged but has since been repaired and someone donated a second siren to the City. She said the Sharkey County EMA has applied for FEMA hazard mitigation funds to buy two more for the county: one for Indianola and one for Cary.
Walker said by the time the sheriff’s office armed the siren, the tornado was already moving across town rapidly. Seconds after the police scanner warned the twister had touched down, it ripped through his house, destroying part of the backside of the property and picking up his carport.
Preparing for Future Natural Disasters
Mayor Walker said he hoped Rolling Fork could get three public storm shelters to support the city and nearby areas since the county is spread over a large area of land. FEMA can help pay for public shelters through community development block grant funds.
He does not know when the town would receive the shelters but said city officials will discuss the topic in future visioning sessions.
Janet Adams, 54, works at a mental-health facility in town. She said she worries about the safety of public storm shelters; with a tornado hitting so quickly, people could have died trying to get to the shelter, she said. Additionally, she said if a storm hit the building, it could injure or kill dozens of people at once.
Sharkey County Supervisor and Board President Bill Newsom said Sharkey County EMA is talking with other local EMA directors to better prepare for the next natural disaster.
Three major floods came through Rolling Fork in 2011, 2019 and 2020, “and they all involved FEMA,” Newsom said. The floods were different from the tornado because the town had longer notice of their arrivals.
He said the county and city leaders have had better communication with FEMA about tornado recovery efforts. That, he added, could be because President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration.
Silver City Hit Hard, Too
Silver City, Miss., is a tiny town of fewer than 217 people. It is in Humphreys County, about 30 miles away from Rolling Fork. The town is mainly residential with a small post office and a church along U.S. Route 49W. The tornado destroyed Silver City, taking out many homes in the neighborhoods in its path.
Humphreys County Supervisor Board President Richard Stevens said the county does not have any money to give residents and businesses affected by the tornado, but it is helping with clean up and coordination efforts.
The county also does not have a public storm shelter or safe room, and the supervisor said he doubts they will build one because of the cost. He said he thinks FEMA and MEMA have “done all they can do” for Silver City.
“There’s no way anything can be enough after a disaster like this, but they have worked very hard,” Stevens said.
When asked about a recovery plan for the county, Stevens said it is “to fix it as fast as we can” but notes it will not be a quick process. He said rebuilding costs, national supply chain issues and a lack of local construction workers are the biggest hurdles the county is facing.
“It’s a tough deal for the people,” Stevens said. “They’re going to be two or three years getting things back to reasonably normal. Some areas probably never will.”
Stevens said recent storms hitting the area have caused more damage in Belzoni than the tornado did, but the severe weather “isn’t aiding” the county’s rebuilding efforts. He noted that the state and local area constantly receive storm warnings, which means citizens pay less attention to the notices because the impending weather often doesn’t cause severe damage.
“People don’t pay any attention to it. They’ll pay a little attention to them after this one, probably two or three times, then they’ll quit again,” Stevens said.
‘We’re Gonna Rise’
Rolling Fork native Janet Adams and her mother, Bessie Adams, were sheltering in the bathroom of their home when the tornado tore through their property and left them trapped in rubble. Storm chasers noticed the women and helped them get to safety.
Janet Adams said she did not return to work for over a month after the storm because of her mental health; she is seeing a therapist to get help. “Going through something like that, you’re gonna need help,” she said.
She said every time it’s cloudy or stormy, she gets nervous but prays for safety.
Shawonder Harris said the tornado and its destruction negatively affected her mental health, especially since most of her family, including herself, were displaced. She said she felt “emotionally drained, mentally drained (and) physically drained,” but that seeing how many people and organizations extended support to Rolling Fork for recovery efforts made her feel “spiritually full.”
Harris said she wondered how many people are actually using the mental-health assistance that is available. “It’s not about whether we have enough help. … It’s about people actually seeking that help and using those services that are provided because services are there,” she said.
Region IV on West Race Street offers out-patient mental health treatment and therapy.
Martha Morris and James Morris said their grandchildren are terrified of bad weather now and may need counseling.
“Seems like people need counseling more available to people. That should’ve been the first thing (local leaders) put in effect,” James Morris told the Mississippi Free Press.
Martha and James Morris said their faith is helping them as they recover and rebuild.
“That’s where faith kicks in; you just got to sit and be patient and let God work it all out,” Martha Morris said. “But we’re gonna rise.”