Hoping for a Comeback in a Town With Nothing to Come Back To
ROLLING FORK, Miss. — There’s no funeral home that’s capable yet of burying the dead.
None of the few restaurants or food stores in town have reopened, so for many people their only meals come from volunteers on the side of the road. If houses are still standing, in many cases their residents are waiting for power or for water that’s more than a trickle. If the car still drives, at least one of its windows was probably blown out. Residents are lucky if they can get a prescription filled. Schools are still closed.
Officials have vowed in recent days that Rolling Fork — which was struck last week by tornadoes that killed 13 people in the town and in surrounding Sharkey County — will come back better than ever. But in a poor, rural area where life was already lived on the margins, just navigating the basics of food, water and shelter can seem almost insurmountable with no immediate fix in sight.
“It’s taken a toll on every single individual that lives here,” said Natalie Perkins, the Sharkey County emergency management coordinator and the editor and publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot, the weekly newspaper in Rolling Fork.
In some cases, families are essentially starting over, their homes and businesses ripped apart by the tornadoes. For some, the first hurdle is the most agonizing: waiting for the two funeral homes to get up and running so they can make arrangements for relatives who were killed.
“I am going to have to see a therapist after going through what I went through,” said Evelyn Macon, who was staying in a donated hotel room in Greenville, Miss., about 40 miles from Rolling Fork. Her home had been destroyed, and she said she was overwhelmed by the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
“We don’t have nothing,” Dianne Shelton, her sister-in-law, said.
Rolling Fork was the community hardest hit by the storm system, which scraped a 170-mile trail of destruction across Mississippi and Alabama, killing at least 26 people in all.
The Mississippi Delta, the wedge of fertile farmland where cotton has been grown for generations between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, is accustomed to foul weather. Plenty of storms have darkened the sky, and flooding has been a recurring concern over the years.
“We’ve had tornadoes, don’t get me wrong,” said Orlon Derrick Smith, who grew up in Rolling Fork and was back helping relatives and their neighbors after the storm. He noted that the terrain made it particularly vulnerable to tornadoes, with the sprawl of open, flat-as-pancake farmland. “They ride the flat land and tear things up,” he said. “But nothing this catastrophic.”
At the Rolling Fork Motel, Demarcus Jackson knew just how long the road back could be.
He and his family — his brother, his nephews, his cousins — had piled into rooms there after their home was destroyed in December during a tornado in the nearby town of Anguilla.
“It’s been exhausting,” Mr. Jackson said. “When you’ve already lost everything, to come back and be in another one.”
Now, his family was stuck, along with others who had been displaced, in crowded and stuffy rooms that have not had electricity since the storm last week. The water coming from the faucets had very little pressure. The children were restless. Everyone was.
“It feels like jail,” said his brother, Deuntrae Jackson, sitting outside on a chair. He was unsure of what would come next — for him or for the community that had become his temporary home.
The two-lane highway that runs through the town was lined on Monday with indistinguishable piles of metal and wood and the carcasses of wrecked cars.
Chuck’s Dairy Bar, a diner that had long been an institution in Rolling Fork, was now nothing more than its slab and the battered metal walk-in freezer that employees had huddled inside to ride out the tornado. Behind it was the obliterated mobile home park where the wreckage — a wig, a mop, clothes, a slow-cooker, trucks — told a story of the lives that had been upended and lost.
In other areas, homes were swept from their foundations, and trees, including some that had been rooted in yards for generations, were yanked from the ground. “We’d be at the right address and the house would be three doors down,” said Jon Gebhardt, a military science professor at the University of Mississippi who helped with rescues and with organizing a shelter and resource hub.
“The night I got here, I cried while I worked,” he said. “There were tears associated with tragedy and tears associated with pride.”
Outsiders have rushed into Rolling Fork, handing out meals and making runs to Walmart to buy T-shirts and underwear. Carolyn Kilgore has been driving back and forth from outside Jackson, the state capital about 80 miles away, to hand out food with her husband.
“Little man, you need a plate,” she told a boy playing outside the Rolling Fork Motel.
On the menu today: pork loin, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips and sports drinks. Clamshell containers filled the back of a pickup truck they were driving around town.
“We’re trying to reach the people who can’t get to us,” Ms. Kilgore said.
A shelter has been opened in an old National Guard armory in Rolling Fork, and there is a single open motel. Those who did not leave town wanted to stay with family or as close to their property as they could. Ms. Kilgore took notice of single-family homes that had become crowded with extended families.
Deloris Kelly’s home was largely spared. The tornado had scraped the back of her house, leaving a hole under her back door that she stuffed with a blanket. She was struggling to keep a window in the front of her house from falling out. “This tape ain’t sticking,” she said with a huff.
Volunteers drove by handing out ham sandwiches and snacks. She nudged her 5-year-old granddaughter to thank them. Ms. Kelly, 52, worried about her. The little girl had asked her whether the tornado was coming back. Ms. Kelly also worried about Rolling Fork. She did not know how it would claw its way back.
“It’s going to take a lot,” she said.
Even before the tornado, Rolling Fork, like much of the Mississippi Delta, had been struggling. The population has dwindled over the years, driven away by the numbing poverty and the lack of economic opportunity. State and federal officials have promised an infusion of resources. City leaders described hopes of a resurgence. But Ms. Macon found it difficult to be optimistic.
“It’s going to take God’s hand,” Ms. Macon said, “to put everything back together in Rolling Fork.”
The physical destruction, as devastating as it is, has been compounded by an emotional toll as people try and fail to rid their minds of the terror of riding out the storm.
On Sunday, Ms. Shelton said she could finally get some rest.
She had been at the clinic at the old armory in Rolling Fork when Linda Short, the mayor of Mayersville, another town in Sharkey County, saw her and said, “I know you can’t lay on a cot.” Ms. Short got her a room at a hotel in the Greenville, about 40 miles away.
There, she had a bed, air-conditioning, electricity and running water. She was safe. She was as comfortable as she could be a month after back surgery. Her sleeping was fitful.
“It’s really not letting you rest,” she said. “You can still hear it, still see it.”
When she closed her eyes, she went right back to Rolling Fork.
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