Mississippi tornado victims wonder, ‘How can we rebuild?’

Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 3:59 AM AKDT|Updated: Mar. 28, 2023 at 4:25 PM AKDT
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ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — The tornado that collapsed the roof and two walls of Jermaine Wells’ Mississippi home also hurled a massive tractor tire that landed near him in the living room as his wife huddled in the laundry room.

The couple survived the Friday night storm, but as they picked through the ruins of their one-story home Monday in Rolling Fork, he said they’re not sure how they’re going to pay for daily expenses, let alone long-term recovery.

Wells, 50, drives a backhoe for a road department in another county, and he said he doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t work. His wife, a cashier at a local store, gathered loose coins as he looked for clothing in the rubble.

“I can’t even get to work. I don’t have no vehicle, no nothing,” Wells said. “How can we rebuild something that we don’t have nothing to build our foundation with?”

Kimberly Berry looks at what's left of her home outside Anguilla, Miss., Saturday, March 25,...
Kimberly Berry looks at what's left of her home outside Anguilla, Miss., Saturday, March 25, 2023, a day after a massive tornado destroyed the one-story structure where she lived with her two daughters. Berry and her 12-year-old daughter survived in a nearby church during the storm, and her 25-year-old daughter survived in the hard-hit town of Rolling Fork. (AP Photo/Emily Wagster Pettus)(AP)

The disaster makes life even more difficult in this economically struggling area. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the U.S., and the majority-Black Delta has long been one of the poorest parts of Mississippi — a place where many people work paycheck to paycheck, often in jobs connected to agriculture.

Two of the counties walloped by the tornado, Sharkey and Humphreys, are among the most sparsely populated in the state, with only a few thousand residents in communities scattered across wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields. Sharkey’s poverty rate is 35%, and Humphreys’ is 33%, compared with about 19% for Mississippi and less than 12% for the entire United States.

People in poverty are vulnerable after disasters not only because they lack financial resources but also because they often don’t have friends or family who can afford to provide long-term shelter, said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of Children’s Defense Fund, a national group that advocates policies to help low-income families.

“We have to make sure people with power — policymakers — pay attention to and keep their attention on people that are often unseen because they are poor, because they are Black, because they are rural,” Wilson told The Associated Press on Monday.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows destroyed businesses and homes near...
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows destroyed businesses and homes near Blues Highway in Rolling Fork, Miss., Sunday, March 26, 2023, a couple of days after a tornado wreaked havoc in the area. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)(AP)

On Monday, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency revised the state death toll from the tornado to 21, down from 25. The agency said the new number is based on deaths confirmed by coroners. MEMA spokeswoman Allie Jasper said the agency does not know of any people still reported missing. One person was killed in Alabama.

Preliminary assessments show 313 structures in Mississippi were destroyed and more than 1,000 were affected in some way, the Federal Emergency Management Agency told emergency managers Monday.

The tornado destroyed many homes and businesses in Rolling Fork and the nearby town of Silver City, leaving mounds of lumber, bricks and twisted metal. The local housing stock was already tight, and some who lost their homes said they will live with friends or relatives. Mississippi opened more than a half-dozen shelters to temporarily house people displaced by the tornado.

The tornado obliterated the modest one-story home that Kimberly Berry shared with her two daughters in the Delta flatlands about 15 miles (24 kilometers) outside Rolling Fork. It left only the foundation and random belongings — a toppled refrigerator, a dresser and matching nightstand, a bag of Christmas decorations, some clothing.

During the storm, Berry and her 12-year-old daughter prayed inside a nearby church that was barely damaged, while her 25-year-old daughter survived in Rolling Fork. Berry shook her head as she looked at the remains of their material possessions. She said she’s grateful she and her children are still alive.

“I can get all this back. It’s nothing,” said Berry, 46, who works as a supervisor at a catfish growing and processing operation. “I’m not going to get depressed about it.”

She spent the weekend with friends and family sorting through salvageable items. Her sister, Dianna Berry, said her own home a few miles away was undamaged. She works at a deer camp, and she said her boss has offered to let Kimberly Berry and her daughters live there for as long as they need.

President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi on Sunday, making federal funding available to hardest-hit areas. But Craig Fugate, who headed FEMA when Barack Obama was president, said it’s important to remember that the agency will not pay for all expenses after a disaster.

“In those communities where people don’t have insurance and the homes were destroyed, their ability to do recovery will be tested,” Fugate said.

FEMA provides temporary housing and helps with some uninsured losses, but he said the agency is not designed to replace everything if homes are uninsured or underinsured. Long-term recovery will be heavily dependent on money from Housing and Urban Development.

“That money won’t flow fast,” he said.

In recent years, FEMA has moved to reduce barriers so that “all people, including those from vulnerable and underserved communities, are better able to access our assistance,” said FEMA spokesperson Jeremy Edwards. He cited agency changes expanding the types of documents survivors can provide to verify they lived in or own a particular home.

Marcus T. Coleman Jr., who heads the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security, said after visiting Rolling Fork he’s concerned about both the mental health and financial challenges for people struggling in the tornado’s aftermath. “Disasters often exacerbate preexisting inequities,” said Coleman.

Denise Durel heads United Way of Southwest Louisiana, where residents are still recovering from hurricanes Laura and Delta that struck in 2020. The organization has been helping people rebuild damaged homes, and some were uninsured or had too little coverage.

“Just drive through town,” she said. “Blue tarps are still there. The houses are in worse shape.”

Louisiana has finally received a large infusion of federal money to help those still struggling from the two 2020 hurricanes. Durel said if people didn’t register with FEMA soon after the storms, they can’t qualify for this new money. She said the application process is difficult and requires internet access, but many families were focused on gutting their homes and might not have known about registration or understood its importance.

“The people in Mississippi have to understand loud and clear: Somehow you have to find a way to get those people registered with FEMA,” Durel said.

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This story has been updated to correct the title for Marcus T. Coleman Jr. He works for the Department of Homeland Security.

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Rebecca Santana reported from Washington, and Associated Press/Report For America reporter Michael Goldberg contributed from Rolling Fork.