The state of Mississippi is facing additional challenges in the aftermath of a massive storm that swept through the southern US last week, killing at least 25 people and destroying entire neighbourhoods. Poverty is exacerbating the difficulties of recovery for many residents, including Kimberly Berry, who lost her modest one-storey home to a tornado in the Mississippi Delta flatlands. Berry and her 12-year-old daughter sought refuge in a nearby church during the storm, while her 25-year-old daughter survived in the hard-hit town of Rolling Fork, 24km away. Berry, who works as a supervisor at a catfish-growing and -processing operation, expressed gratitude that she and her children are still alive, despite losing all their material possessions.
Search and rescue workers have been surveying the damage in Rolling Fork, where homes have been shredded, buildings flattened and cars smashed. Mayor Eldridge Walker described the devastation as “heartbreaking”. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves thanked federal partners for their assistance and praised the generosity of Mississippians, who have offered countless donations and volunteered their time. However, many people across the state face an uncertain future. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the country, and the majority-Black Delta region has long been one of the poorest parts of Mississippi, with many residents working paycheck to paycheck in jobs tied to agriculture.
Two of the counties hit 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’s is 33%, compared with about 19% for Mississippi and under 12% for the entire country. Wayne Williams, who teaches construction skills at a vocational education centre in Rolling Fork, said that rebuilding and recovering from the devastation will be a long road.
Tornadoes are relatively common in the US, especially in the central and southern parts of the country. They are notoriously difficult to predict, and Friday’s tornado, which left a trail of destruction more than 160km long across the state, was given a rating of four out of five on the Enhanced Fujita scale by the National Weather Service. Winds of up to 320km/h were recorded. Dozens of people have been injured, and officials say the death toll could rise. The severe weather also killed a man in Alabama when he was trapped under an overturned trailer.
Volunteers have poured in from surrounding towns, bringing donations of water, food, canned goods, diapers, wipes, medicine and toothpaste to collection points. Lauren Hoda traveled 112km to help, spending Saturday night in Rolling Fork. Similar destruction was seen in twister-hit Silver City, where residents salvaged what they could from destroyed homes.
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 hit because her sister had called her on Friday night, warning her of the potentially deadly storm. Berry said that as the storm rumbled and howled overhead, she tried to ignore the noise and prayed. “That’s the only thing that was stuck in my head was just to pray, pray and cry out to God,” she said. “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.”