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For some Rolling Fork residents, recovery from Mississippi tornado is uncertain

Local, state and federal officials pledge united front and long-term support for counties leveled by unusually strong twisters

After a tornado ripped through Rolling Fork, Miss., survivors sorted through the wreckage of homes and recounted their ordeal. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)
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ROLLING FORK, Miss. — For many of the residents of the community of Rolling Fork, the recovery is not going to be quick. In fact, it may never come.

It’s not for a lack of promises or commitments from local, state and federal officials, which have come steadily over the weekend. It’s just that everything that once stood for their lives is gone.

Glenn Spells was busy hurling waterlogged mattresses, clothing and broken pieces of furniture from the bare wood frame of his devastated duplex. Seven years of Rolling Fork life lay in a colorful pile around his ankles.

So few pieces of his rental unit remained upright that there was no guarantee it would not be carted off to a landfill in the coming days. Uncertain of tomorrow, he and two friends worked beneath the nonexistent roof to throw the home’s contents to the lawn as his 9-year-old daughter looked on.

“We lost everything. We didn’t have insurance for any of this,” said Spells, who rented the property with his girlfriend. He is already looking ahead over the next few months and doesn’t believe his future includes life in Rolling Fork.

Satellite images show destruction from tornadoes

President Biden approved a major disaster declaration for Mississippi early Sunday, unlocking federal aid to assist in recovery efforts after twisters caused wind gusts of over 166 mph and flattened buildings, killing at least 25 people in the state and one in Alabama. Officials were still tallying the dead on Sunday.

In photos: The scene after tornadoes rip through Mississippi and Alabama

The White House’s action will allow individuals in at least four Mississippi counties to receive federal grants for temporary housing and home repairs, as well as loans to cover uninsured property losses. Top Biden officials arrived in Mississippi on Sunday to assess the damages and laid out a plan for what they said will be a long road to recovery, even as the state was preparing for more violent storms.

The damage from Friday night’s tornado — one of the worst on record in the state’s history — presents tough challenges for the majority-Black communities that were most affected. Questions also remain about how various levels of governments should have better prepared and warned residents, many of whom live below the poverty line.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said Sunday during a news conference near wreckage in Rolling Fork that teams will be going door to door in Mississippi’s hardest-hit communities to help residents register for assistance. Criswell was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who assured reporters that victims will be helped “regardless” of their socioeconomic conditions.

The White House granted the declaration following a request by Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who thanked the president for approving federal disaster assistance, adding that officials at all levels of government are working as a “united front.”

“It’s been my experience in times like this that there is no such thing as politics,” Reeves said. He also said he believed search-and-rescue teams have searched most of the rubble.

Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker (D), who is also the local funeral director, said he personally had lost friends to the tornadoes. “I’m having to meet my families, those who have lost loved ones, and help them make it through this traumatic time.” Thirteen Rolling Fork residents were killed by the tornado, the county coroner told NBC News.

Still, standards of living and luck are also revealing a stark contrast between how quickly some Rolling Fork residents will put their lives back together compared with others.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures for Rolling Fork, located in Mississippi’s Lower Delta with a population of roughly 2,000, more than 80 percent of residents are Black and about 21 percent live below the poverty line — a rate higher than the state average. Roughly 30 percent of residents live in mobile homes, census data shows. (Research shows that mobile homes are significantly more vulnerable to tornado damage.)

The National Weather Service forecast office in Jackson, Miss., which is in the process of surveying the damage from Friday night’s storm, rated the tornado that swept through Rolling Fork and Silver City a 4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale of 0-to-5 intensity. The United States averages 1,150 to 1,200 tornadoes per year, and EF4s make up just about 1 percent of the total.

Cody Sellars, a lifelong resident of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, assesses the damage from a recent tornado and wonders what it will take for life to move on. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

Why the size of the Mississippi tornado was rare

Charles Weissinger, 72, a lifelong resident of Rolling Fork, was at home with his wife and 5-year-old grandson when the tornado struck around 8 p.m. A tree crashed through one corner of their house. A door, ripped from its hinges, sailed through the center of the home. The storm tore off part of the roof and blew out the windows.

“I laid down on top of my grandson to make sure flying glass did not cut him,” Weissinger said. “He was very frightened. We all were.”

Weissinger told The Washington Post that he and his family had trouble finding their way out of their house. Their ears popped as the storm moved on. It was dark and overcast, but it was clear the damage was widespread.

“The vast preponderance of all the residential and commercial property in our little community is effectively gone,” Weissinger said. “I’m sitting in my office right now and the roof is gone. I’m looking at blue sky.”

Here's how to help people impacted by the Mississippi tornadoes

Heavy machinery had largely cleared Rolling Fork streets and back roads by noon Saturday. Soon after that, large excavators were at work removing power lines and rubble. Many homes will never see repairs. Rattled to their foundations by the monster tornado Friday, some were already on the backs of tractor-trailers, headed to a dump site.

Some streets that were impassable on Friday night were eerily clear of homes, trees and people by Sunday. Empty lots and clear foundations sat on blocks once filled with the lively noise of neighbors.

Rollo Santucci, another Rolling Fork resident, was sitting in the living room when he heard the tornado coming and ran to a closet with his wife and dog. Though the back of his house is gone and many windows are busted, Santucci and his wife have been staying in it since the storm.

Santucci broke down when he thought of the most precious items he had lost to the storm: photographs of his daughter who died in 2017 and a needlepoint a friend made in honor of his Army unit, the 173rd Airborne division. “Those are things that are irreplaceable,” Santucci said.

Santucci and his wife have lived in Rolling Fork since 2009, and they love the friendly, quiet town. “We’re gonna rebuild,” Santucci said. “We’re not leaving. This is home now.”

In Silver City, 30 miles east of Rolling Fork, just a few buildings are left standing in this Mississippi Delta community of about 200.

Timaka James-Jones, a local official now based out of a small metal shed normally used by county road crews, said the work has been all-consuming since first light Saturday. The area saw devastating floods in 2011 and destruction from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even though Mississippi is no stranger to tornadoes, she said nothing like this has ever hit this area where she has lived her entire life.

The Weather Service in Jackson reported that the Rolling Fork twister was on the ground for 59 miles, an unusually long distance. Fewer than 1 percent of tornadoes in the United States travel more than 50 miles, according to a Washington Post analysis of Weather Service data recorded between 1950 and 2021.

Severe weather pounded other parts of the South. Thirty homes in Troup County, Ga., were destroyed and 100 more damaged, said the county’s emergency management director, Zac Steele. No deaths were reported.

Scattered severe storms are expected in parts of the South and Southeast on Monday and Tuesday, especially near the Gulf Coast. Some storms could produce damaging winds, hail, flooding and perhaps an isolated tornado. However, the risk of violent tornadoes, destructive winds and large hail will be lower compared with Friday and Sunday, according to the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

During the second half of the workweek, the South should catch a break. But, as a new storm develops in the central states late Thursday into Friday, severe thunderstorms could erupt in parts of the Plains and Midwest.

Gurley, Brasch and Shammas reported from Washington. Scott Dance in Silver City, Miss.; Mark Shavin in Sandy Springs, Ga.; Jason Samenow and Kasha Patel in Washington; and Leo Sands and Niko Kommenda in London contributed to this report.

Deadly tornadoes outbreak in Mississippi and Alabama

The latest: As a violent tornado neared Rolling Fork, some residents say they didn’t hear any sirens. Tornadoes are common in Mississippi — but not often this deadly — and mobile homes in Rolling Fork were most vulnerable to damage. On Friday, devastating tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama killed at least 26 people.

Why was the Mississippi tornado’s size rare? It caused at least 25 deaths in the state along a path of 59.4 miles, according to the National Weather Service. Photos of damage in Mississippi show areas reduced to piles of wreckage. Here’s why Mississippi’s tornadoes were so deadly and the dangers of storm chasing in the dark.

Are there any relief efforts? For some Rolling Fork residents, recovery from the severe Mississippi tornado damage is uncertain. Here’s how to help those impacted by the tornadoes.