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Lopsided Recovery Expected in Storm-Wrecked Rolling Fork

Rolling Fork resident Flora Bee was barely back to her senses the morning after a storm leveled most of her town. Bee has lived here all her life and had occupied her current home 13 full years when the freak March 24 tornado targeted her home and nearly every home around it.

“I was about to eat me some hot fish, looking at the ‘Antique Roadshow,’ and it came so quick it broke the windows out of my house; and then I just got on the floor and crawled to the bedroom and got in the closet,” said Bee, who spoke with Black Girl Times the following day after the destruction.

Bee was one of the lucky ones. Raging winds blew out her glass-filled sunroom but left her pristine metal roof intact. Most of her walls are standing, unlike many of her neighbor’s houses—some of which have vanished. Directly across the street from Bee’s home sits an empty foundation of cinderblocks that once held a mobile home. The home lies nearly upside down nearby, rolled like a kicked football.

“My neighbor Mary Barfield died in there,” said Bee, pointing to the massive, upturned heap. “They came and pulled her out this morning.”

This upturned mobile home was the home of Rolling Fork resident Mary Barfield before a tornado flipped it and killed its occupant.

The tornado’s abnormally wide funnel cut a huge swath along the town’s center at Deer Creek, damaging more affluent white neighborhoods on the western shore as well as more affordable apartments, duplexes and mobile homes on the creek’s eastern side. It then moved on to maul the town’s northwestern portion and take out much of Rolling Fork’s industrial center.

The sheer girth of the storm, coupled with EF4-sized winds, gave the tornado ferocious reach. Nearly the size of a small town itself, the tornado was able to flatten buildings on the East side of the community while simultaneously tossing cars many blocks away. With that kind of size, neighbors say it only needed a handful of hideous minutes to hoover most of Rolling Fork into rubble.

A storm that size does not discriminate. It caught both Black and white neighborhoods in its nearly quarter-mile wide path. The subsequent cleanup and recovery, however, will not likely be so even.

The damage in Rolling Fork appears to go on forever, say town residents.

Homeowners on Deer Creek’s affluent western shore were already out with chainsaws the next day, removing massive tree limbs and calling their insurance companies. Many renters and mobile home homeowners on the eastern side, however, have no insurance. For them, their property loss stands a very good chance of being permanent.

“This town was the last place that could afford to be hit by something like this,” said Rolling Fork native Jordan Stubbs, who lost his uncle Frank Stubbs to the storm.

Stubbs said many town residents have cashier jobs and farm jobs “because that’s all there is to do here.” These jobs, he said, pay $10 an hour. Many also rented their homes, or lived in modest homes that were already paid off. Neither of these scenarios tend to come with home insurance in Rolling Fork.

That’s not the case for many of the white residents on the more affluent side of town, who either mortgage their more expensive homes through agencies that require home insurance or could afford to keep up insurance premiums for their fully purchased houses. Many of these same residents had already reached out to their insurance companies and had damage assessors on the way.

Charles Taylor, executive director of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said he feared a lopsided recovery, similar to the uneven recovery that ensued after the historic damage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“This is a very resilient community, but this storm was devastating,” said Taylor, interviewed at a nearby triage unit at Rolling Fork’s armory. “We know the poverty that we see in these areas, and we know how things have gone in Mississippi before.”

Taylor warned that Mississippi white leadership habitually aggravates devastating natural disasters with their own “disastrous policies.”

“Places like this show that we really need to do things like expand Medicaid so folks can have healthcare in this area. We need to supply as many jobs as possible to make sure the school system is as strong as possible … to make sure folks have broadband internet and the highest bandwidth available. These are some of the things that our state can do in support so that when we do have these unfortunate natural disasters, people are able to be more prepared.”

That is not the reality in much of the majority-Black Mississippi Delta, however. Mississippi is one of just 12 states whose leaders still refuse to expand Medicaid as of 2023, even though a majority of the state prefers to expand the program to cover the working poor. And while Gov. Tate Reeves is happy to announce the state’s $2.5 billion investment in places like Lowndes County, population has steadily fled the Delta’s dwindling job market and low pay over the last decade.

Oxfam America and the NAACP both advocated heavily for equitable assistance in the Gulf Coast after the statewide destruction of Hurricane Katrina. The NAACP later had to sue the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to try to stop the state of Mississippi from diverting $600 million in federal hurricane-relief funds intended for housing to an unrelated port expansion.

Taylor warned that state officials have a habit of valuing some victims over others.


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