By Emily Wagster Pettus, Robert Bumsted and Rebecca Santana | Associated Press
ROLLING FORK, Miss. – The tornado that collapsed the roof and two walls of Jermaine Wells’ house in Mississippi also hurled a huge tractor tire that landed next to him in the living room while his wife huddled in the laundry room.
The couple survived Friday night’s storm, but when they searched through the ruins of their one-story home in Rolling Fork on Monday, he said they’re not sure how they’re going to pay for day-to-day expenses, much less long-term recovery. term. .
Wells, 50, drives a backhoe for a highway 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, collected loose coins as he searched the rubble for clothing.
“I can’t even get to work. I don’t have a vehicle, nothing at all,” Wells said. “How can we rebuild something that we can’t build anything with?”
The disaster makes life in this economically hard-hit area even more difficult. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the US, and the largely black delta has long been one of the poorest parts of Mississippi – a place where many people work paycheck to paycheck, often in jobs related to agriculture.
Two of the counties torn 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 vast cotton, corn and soybean fields. Sharkey’s poverty rate is 35% and Humphreys’ is 33%, compared to about 19% for Mississippi and less than 12% for the entire United States.
People living 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 Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of Children’s Defense Fund, a national group that advocates for policies to help low-income families.
“We need to get people in power – policy makers – to pay attention and hold their attention to people who are often unseen because they are poor, because they are black, because they live in rural areas,” Wilson told The Associated Press on Monday. .
On Monday, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency revised the state’s 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 has no knowledge of any missing persons. One person has been killed in Alabama.
Preliminary assessments show that 313 buildings 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 wood, bricks, and twisted metal. The local housing stock was already tight and some who lost their homes said they would go live with friends or relatives. Mississippi opened more than half a dozen shelters to temporarily house people displaced by the tornado.
The tornado destroyed the modest one-story home Kimberly Berry shared with her two daughters in the Delta Plains, about 15 miles outside of Rolling Fork. It left only the foundation and random belongings – an overturned refrigerator, a dresser and matching nightstand, a bag of Christmas decorations, some clothes.
During the storm, Berry and her 12-year-old daughter prayed in 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 is thankful that she and her children are still alive.
“I can get all this back. It’s nothing,” says Berry, 46, who works as a supervisor at a catfish farm and processing facility. “It’s not going to make me depressed.”
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 park and she said her boss has offered to let Kimberly Berry and her daughters live there for as long as necessary.
President Joe Biden issued a declaration of emergency for Mississippi on Sunday, making federal funding available to the hardest-hit areas. But Craig Fugate, who ran FEMA when Barack Obama was president, said it’s important to remember that the agency won’t pay all the costs after a disaster.
“In those communities where people don’t have insurance and their homes have been destroyed, their ability to recover will be tested,” Fugate said.
FEMA provides temporary housing and helps with some uninsured losses, but he said the agency isn’t designed to replace everything when homes are uninsured or underinsured. Long-term recovery will depend heavily on money from housing and urban development.
“That money won’t flow anytime soon,” he said.
In recent years, FEMA has taken steps to reduce barriers so that “all people, including those from vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, have better access to our assistance,” said FEMA spokesperson Jeremy Edwards. He cited changes to the agency that expand the types of documents survivors can provide to verify that they lived in or owned a particular home.
Marcus T. Coleman Jr., head of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with the Department of Health and Human Services, said after a visit to Rolling Fork that he is concerned about both mental health and financial challenges for people who are struggling in the aftermath of the tornado. “Disasters often exacerbate pre-existing inequalities,” Coleman said.
Denise Durel heads United Way in Southwest Louisiana, where residents are still recovering from hurricanes Laura and Delta that hit in 2020. The organization has helped people rebuild damaged homes, and some were uninsured or undercovered.
“Drive through town,” she said. “Blue sails are still there. The houses are in worse shape.”
Louisiana finally received a major infusion of federal money to help those still struggling with the two hurricanes of 2020. Durel said if people don’t register with FEMA soon after the storms, they won’t be able to 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 may not have known about registration or understood its importance.
“The people of Mississippi need to understand loud and clear: Somehow you have to find a way to get those people registered with FEMA,” Durel said.
Rebecca Santana reported from Washington, and Associated Press/Report For America reporter Michael Goldberg contributed from Rolling Fork.