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Society

Mississippi Tornado Recovery Tough for Low-income Residents

ROLLING FORK, Miss. — A massive tornado obliterated the modest one-story home that Kimberly Berry shared with her two daughters in the Mississippi Delta flatlands, leaving only a foundation and some random belongings — a toppled refrigerator, a dresser and matching nightstand, a bag of Christmas decorations, some clothing.

During the storm Friday, Berry and her 12-year-old daughter huddled and prayed at a nearby church that was barely damaged, while her 25-year-old daughter survived in the hard-hit town of Rolling Fork, some 15 miles (24 kilometers) away.

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.”

Like many people in this economically struggling area, she faces an uncertain future. 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 in jobs tied to agriculture.

A truck rests atop a building, damaged by the Friday night tornado that hit Rolling Folk, Miss., on Sunday morning, March 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

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 to about 19% for Mississippi and under 12% for the entire United States.

“It’s going to be a long road to recovery, trying to rebuild and get over the devastation,” Wayne Williams, who teaches construction skills at a vocational education center in Rolling Fork, said Sunday as people across town hammered blue tarps onto damaged roofs and used chainsaws to cut fallen trees.

The tornado killed 25 and injured dozens in Mississippi. It destroyed many homes and businesses in Rolling Fork and the nearby town of Silver City, leaving mounds of lumber, bricks and twisted metal.

Ezell Williams cries while talking about the damage caused to his properties and those of his neighbors, Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Rolling Fork, Miss., where a tornado swept through the town two days earlier. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The local housing stock was already tight, and some who lost their homes said they will live with friends of relatives. Mississippi opened more than a half-dozen shelters to temporarily house people displaced by the tornado.

President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi early Sunday, making federal funding available to hardest-hit areas.

Berry spent the weekend with friends and family sorting through salvageable items at her destroyed home near a two-lane highway that traverses farm fields. She said she walked to the church before the tornado because her sister called her Friday night and frantically said TV weather forecasters had warned a potentially deadly storm was headed her way. Berry said as the storm rumbled and howled overhead, she tried to ignore the noise.

Damage is visible Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Rolling Fork, Miss., after a tornado ripped through the community. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

“That’s the only thing that was stuck in my head was just to pray, pray and cry out to God,” she said Saturday. “I didn’t hear nothing but my own self praying and God answering my prayer. I mean, I can get another house, another furniture. But literally saving my life — I’m thankful.”

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.

 

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