April Christmas Patterson is a member of the now destroyed Mt. Hearld Baptist Church in Rolling Fork. One of her fellow members passed away during the devastating storm that ravaged the town on Friday, March 24, 2023, wiping out entire street blocks that totaled approximately three hundred homes and businesses. Now, Patterson – among other community members – is helping to rebuild her community and provide shelter for family members who’ve lost their homes.
“It’s been very emotional,” Patterson said. “I have nine close family members and six of them lost their homes. But all of them were blessed, and they are still alive. It’s unreal what we’re experiencing here.”
On his trip to Rolling Fork a week after the storm (March 31), President Joe Biden heard stories very similar to Patterson’s from various residents across the town. Biden – along with First Lady Jill Biden, Governor Tate Reeves and his wife Elee Reeves, Congressman Bennie Thompson, Secretary Marcia Fudge, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, and Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker – toured the wreckage left from the storm and greeted citizens.
As the wind blew, President Biden gave his remarks with fallen trees, a demolished auto parts store, and a decimated animal shelter as his background. “Unfortunately, I’ve been to too many sites like this over the last two years around the country,” he said.
“Three hundred homes and businesses that are nothing more than piles of twisted materials mixed up with personal items that mattered so much — teddy bears, family albums, clothes, dishes. The basics of life, all gone. Some of this dysfunction and destruction that you’re seeing here is going to take years to recover and rebuild, but we’re starting now,” Biden continued.
Congressman Thompson got the ball rolling when he talked with President Biden on the Saturday after the storm. “I made a call to the president and said we need help. We have a record declaration in terms of disaster. This [press conference] is a statement of commitment on the part of our federal, state, local [and nonprofit] partners. In fact, help is not just on the way, but help is here.”
The president thanked Congressman Thompson for his diligent work during the crisis. “When I heard about the devastation here in Rolling Fork, the first thing that came to mind was, ‘I got to get a hold of Bennie Thompson.’ It’s his district, and he treats it like his home. He’s been a steadfast leader in every crisis I’ve worked with him on, and he’s always there for his constituents. And he’s been a great partner of mine.”
That partnership led to a wider, largely unprecedented partnership with Mississippi’s Republican leadership. Governor Reeves spoke to President Biden on the day after the storm and during his remarks at the press conference, he thanked the president for his willingness to send immediate aid to those in need. He said that President Biden told him two things – that he would expedite the declaration to get resources to the people who needed them and that he would be there to help until the end.
“When I spoke to the governor, he said what he needed most was a federal disaster declaration. So, in the earliest hours of Sunday morning, I signed that expedited Major Disaster Declaration, which gave more access to federal resources. With that declaration, we’re providing funding to cover overtime for local emergency responders to cover the cost of removing all debris — 100 percent of that cost,” said the president.
Governor Reeves noted that the storm – complete with a tornado that reached 170-mph winds in the three minutes it crossed through Rolling Fork – entered Mississippi on the western border of the state right on the Mississippi River and exited northeast over the Tombigbee River Basin on Friday, March 24, tearing through Silver City, Carrollton, Winona, and Amory, Mississippi as well.
“This storm was devastating to these communities. You can’t help but have two emotions when you see this damage and you see these communities,” expressed Governor Reeves. “The first emotion is one of heartbreak – heartbreak for the people who lost lives. But you can’t just have the emotion of heartbreak, you must also have the emotion of inspiration. Because what this storm has caused the communities in Rolling Fork and Sharkey County, and so many other communities from here to Amory, is inspirational.
“People from across Mississippi and people from across America, Mr. President, have shown up and they’ve shown out. They’ve shown up to help people in need. They didn’t ask where you were from or what you did for a living. They didn’t ask any questions; they just showed up to help. It’s made me proud to be a Mississippian.”
In his remarks, Biden noted that he always sees the same thing whenever there’s a disaster in America. “When the neighborhood is in trouble, the whole neighborhood comes to help,” he said.
Congressman Thompson also mentioned how local organizations, including churches, the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors, and various communities throughout the state, have come to Rolling Fork to volunteer and donate. “The notion that seven days ago all the buildings you see around us were alive, vibrant. The community of Rolling Fork was whole. In seven short days, we’ve come to this. We now have to fix it and get it right. It’s important that as a community, we continue to pull together. After people have left, we still have a long way to go.”
To volunteer or donate to those affected by the storm, please visit msmove.org and/or contact the MS NAACP at (601) 353-6906.