This story is published in collaboration with Mississippi Free Press.
Before a tornado destroyed her home in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on March 24, 2023, Shawonder Harris drove about 10 miles roundtrip each weekday to her job at the high school in nearby Anguilla.
Today, five months after the storm, the 44-year-old algebra teacher is living with her sister in Byram, Mississippi, while she considers her options.
In the meantime, her daily commute is 84 miles, one way.
Harris’ mobile home was one of hundreds of residences and businesses destroyed by a storm system that swept through rural western Mississippi in late March, hitting the small town of Rolling Fork especially hard. The storm, which killed 25 Mississippians, scattered Rolling Fork residents like Harris into temporary housing near and far. And that’s where many remain.
“Everything’s just gone,” Harris told the Mississippi Free Press. The tornado destroyed 14 houses in her neighborhood alone, she said.
“So now, we’re all trying to find somewhere to live,” Harris said.
Some of Rolling Fork’s residents are rebuilding. Others, like Harris, have decided they won’t. Renters who lost their residences, and who still have not been offered temporary shelter by FEMA, wait for landlords to decide their long-term housing prospects.
Across the town of Rolling Fork, hundreds of personal and group decisions will shape the town’s future, as will the decisions of far-flung public agencies with their own rules about how – and whether – to help.
‘It’s Not Going To Be Quick’
Rolling Fork had about 1,900 residents during the 2020 Census. About five miles east of the Mississippi River, it’s the seat of Sharkey County, a rural county with about 3,800 residents.
Mayor Eldridge Walker said about 300, or 16% of Rolling Fork residents had to relocate after the tornado. The town’s population has dwindled and the school district has lost students. Now, some residents who owned private land have returned to live in temporary housing units, like mobile homes. Walker did not have an accurate count of how many formerly displaced residents are back in town as of August 9.
The town had about 50 businesses before the tornado. The few that weren’t damaged, 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.
Sharkey County EMA Deputy Director Natalie 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 Emergency Management Agency has been on the ground clearing up debris since the night of the tornado and working with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency 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 don’t 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.
Relocating and Rebuilding
Four 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.”
Walker said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will supply under 100 fully furnished, temporary mobile homes and campers for renters and homeowners to live in for 18 months. FEMA has been delivering the trailers recently to people who owned private land. The mayor said land needed to be cleared to have room for more temporary housing units to come in.
Samaritan’s Purse approved 20 Rolling Fork homeowners to receive a free, permanent house, a spokesperson from the Christian humanitarian organization told the Mississippi Free Press on August 18. (CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the housing was temporary. This article has also been updated to show the current number of units that Samaritan’s Purse has delivered.)
While residents wait for their temporary homes, some are living in hotels while others are staying with family members.
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.
A new nonprofit called Rolling Fork Build Back Better is building houses for renters, Sharkey County EMA Deputy Director Natalie Perkins mentioned, saying they were building six houses the week of June 19.
‘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 don’t 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 are being constructed, two businesses are getting fixed up and some small businesses are 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 hasn’t 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
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 arrival.
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
Silver City, Mississippi, 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 the 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 lost their Rolling Fork home and vehicles in the tornado. They 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.”