'This is my home': Residents fight to save their Mississippi town after devastating tornado

Frustrations have mounted as residents say rebuilding efforts have stalled.

July 30, 2023, 6:00 AM

With nothing but the clothes on her back, Janett Barnes says she is preparing to say goodbye to her beloved hometown of Rolling Fork, Mississippi.

"We went through a devastating time," Barnes, 63, told ABC News. "Your mind is really just catching up with what went on."

On the evening of March 24, a devastating EF4 tornado wreaked havoc across the Mississippi Delta. The twister took a direct path across Rolling Fork – a small rural farming town off Highway 61 with a population around 1,800 – leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake.

Thirteen lives were lost in Sharkey County, which includes the city of Rolling Fork. Hundreds of homes and businesses were reduced to rubble, and local services including hospitals, the police department and the public school were all severely damaged or destroyed, officials said.

PHOTO: In this March 31, 2023, file photo, destruction is shown after a devastating tornado tore through the area in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
In this March 31, 2023, file photo, destruction is shown after a devastating tornado tore through the area in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, FILE

Residents are still picking up the pieces and trying to navigate their road to recovery over four months later.

Barnes, who was a renter in Rolling Fork, says the home she was living in was destroyed. In a matter of seconds – she lost everything.

"They're not doing anything for Rolling Fork," Barnes said of city officials. "For the ones that were renters, and didn't have anything, we just got displaced in motels and don't have a way to build a house…so I'm ready to get out of Mississippi."

Barnes is one of many residents voicing their frustrations with local leaders. Residents claim city officials promised to rebuild the city but have not been forthcoming with plans or a timeline for rebuilding.

The top concern the residents say is the issue of displaced people who have nowhere to call home. According to the American Red Cross, nearly 300 Rolling Fork are living in hotel/motel properties in northern Mississippi.

In the aftermath of the tornado, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency announced an initial plan with the American Red Cross to house individuals and families for up to six months based on need.

"In discussions with the state, we set an initial goal of having all residents set in transitionary or permanent housing 6 months from the disaster. However, at that time, we will reevaluate and see how many folks remain in our care and if we need to continue those efforts," a spokesperson for the Red Cross said about plans beyond the six months.

With most of the hotels used for temporary housing located miles outside of Rolling Fork, many people, like Barnes, have decided to forgo emergency housing to stay with relatives in town.

The federal government has also promised funding to help residents rebuild.

President Joe Biden declared a major disaster declaration for the state of Mississippi on March 31 – in effect, enabling FEMA to coordinate and support the response and recovery. To date, FEMA has provided more than $5.2 million in disaster grants for 750 survivors in Sharkey County, according to the agency.

"Recovery takes a long time," Darryl Dragoo, a federal coordinator officer for FEMA, told ABC News. "We are four months past the actual date of when the disaster occurred, but when we look at that, there's been a lot of changes already."

But for an area where 35% of the population lives below the poverty line, and with high prices of basic supplies like food and gas, for many those changes can't come fast enough.

More than half of Mississippi residents have fewer than $1,000 in savings and about 38% have no savings at all, the state treasury reports.

Barnes says she received $2,000 from FEMA for her property loss and an additional $1,500 for living assistance. That support, along with housing assistance provided by American Red Cross, and clothing donations from generous donors, have been a lifeline, she says.

"I know with hope I'll make it," Barnes says, "I'm not going to give up."

Business owner Curtis Macon, who lost both his home and his business on the night of the tornado, says it's time for local leaders to step up. "We just want some answers and we just want to move on to the next phase."

Macon, who is now living in a FEMA trailer on his property, is steadfast on staying in Rolling Fork, adding, "this is my home."

Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told ABC News the city is working alongside FEMA to locate land for additional temporary housing. He urged the community to have patience as the city rebuilds.

"This is an ongoing project. This is not a quick fix to what we're going through here in this community," Mayor Eldridge Walker told ABC News. "I think we need to be a little more patient. And understand that a build back for a community is going to take proper planning, strategic planning…that's our number one priority."

But many in Rolling Fork are starting to have doubts. Concerned citizens recently took to the streets outside the makeshift City Hall with signs reading "No Show, No Pay," decrying what they say is a lack of transparency from the city board.

PHOTO: In this March 31, 2023, file photo, residents clean up after a devastating tornado tore through the area in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
In this March 31, 2023, file photo, residents clean up after a devastating tornado tore through the area in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, FILE

Mayor Walker said when asked about the protests, "I understand the fact that when people are in need, the day to day is not a good thing for them at the time. But we're just here to reassure them, that we're doing all that we can to ease that burden. And to do our part as elected officials to see that one."

He added, "This is going to be a unified effort on all parts, not just the city, not just the county, but it's going to require the community coming together."

Undray Williams, a board member for Rolling Fork, defended the board's willingness to hold public meetings and be open about the rebuilding process.

"I know it's an issue, they say about transparency, but it's been [transparent]," Williams, who says he also lost his home in the storm, told ABC News.

He added, "I think progress is being made, a lot of progress has been made. You see some houses coming up, trailers coming up" and "now we got to work on getting the renters back in."

Through "Mississippi Strong," an initiative from "Good Morning America" that spotlights the region's effort to get back on its feet, "GMA" will continue to follow the recovery, rebuilding and reopening efforts in the city of Rolling Fork.

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