By Angela Buckner
JA Contributing Writer
Four months ago, the daily dynamics of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, were changed in a matter of minutes due to a catastrophic EF-4 tornado. Several residents lost their lives; many lost their homes.
Most residents were forced to evacuate. Many found temporary shelter in Greenville, Indianola, and Vicksburg.
The devastating tornado attracted national media attention. President Joe Biden visited the storm-ravaged community. Hundreds of individuals and scores of organizations provided a ray of hope as they helped provide immediate relief.
Now four months after the deadly tornado, hundreds of displaced residents still wonder when they will be able to return to their homes, schools, and some semblance of a normal life.
A Litany of Complaints
On August 1, dozens of Black and white disaster victims attended the Rolling Fork city board meeting. Many complaints were raised.
Some residents expressed concerns about the previous four scheduled city board meetings being canceled, allegedly because it lacked the required quorum.
Noelle Hays Whiteside, a local citizen recording past city board meetings, said: “The stalling on behalf of the city’s leadership is inhumane and unnecessary. … all we want is for our citizens to be back home and our city rebuilt properly where we can begin to recover.”
During the meeting, the designated “commission” for recovery efforts posed a set of questions to the board about the displaced storm victims and possible deadlines to gauge how much more time was necessary to bring the citizens back home. The board was advised by the city’s attorney Allan Woodard and Vice Mayor LaDonna Sias to table the discussion/response because Mayor Walker was absent. Alderman Calvin Stewart said the “commission’s” response from the board would be provided in writing, once agreements were made and the mayor became available.
Many Rolling Fork citizens are reporting there is no effective functioning means of updating citizens on boil water notices, town hall meetings, and other public matters. During an exclusive interview with this writer via telephone, Mayor Eldridge “Butch” Walker stated that Rolling Fork is currently working on a way to stream the meetings digitally for the citizens and Board of Aldermen.
Still Waiting for Temporary Housing
Janet Barnes, also a Rolling Fork citizen and reportedly among the 300 residents trying to move back home, stated, “I’m living in Anguilla with my sister. I thank God that she’s allowing me to stay with her for right now. All my things are packed in my car. It’s been four months and we all have been waiting to have a trailer, but nothing has happened yet. I don’t know what the mayor and board are waiting on. We need financial help. You pretty much have to be living under a bridge to qualify for quality assistance.”
M.A.P. Gulf Coast (from Houma, Louisiana) presented a proposal that states: “Labor and equipment to produce temporary housing…consisting of the following: 45 new residential trailer homes 14’ x 68’ mix of 2 bed, 2 bath and 3 bed, 2 bath; each unit installed with all utilizes hooked up and credentials with its own water and electric meter; each unit to have a 16’ x 40’ concrete parking slab; all roads and access improved with limestone; park will have a playground and greenery area; reference for ten (10) percent of units to be handicap accessible; streetlights provided; dedicated personnel to provide onsite maintenance; all municipal utilities (elect, water, sewer) included; and term of lease agreement is 18 months.” Presumably, all the temporary housing and included amenities would come at no cost to the Town of Rolling Fork.
The Jim Price Show reported contractors were setting up the property a couple of months before the date noted on the proposal document.
Another resident, Diane Shelton, described the hardship endured since the tornado as being constant. She submitted photos, showing raw sewage backing up into her home.
Shelton explained, “It smells so bad around this place. I shouldn’t have to beg leadership to listen. It’s not right to force people to live like this. You want the real truth about what we’re going through four months later, come to my house. I ain’t ashamed to show y’all.” She further stated, “I thank the Lord that First United Baptist Church assisted in getting me back inside a home, but we need financial help too. They can’t do everything.”
According to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party President Cardell Wright, “Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Office of Pollution Control or MDEQ states that it is unlawful for citizens to be exposed to raw sewage. It is inhumane to breathe raw sewage on a constant basis. Not only that, other Rolling Fork citizens are also susceptible to those hazardous toxins.”
Expensive Building Permit Fees
Cynthia Prestiani, considered by locals to be a “homeless homeowner”, has an autistic son. Prestiani said: “I been out of my home so long that my son is starting to act out. Keep in mind, we are homeowners. If it wasn’t for people who care about us, I don’t know where we would be.” She shared her frustration with city zoning and expensive permit fees from the city, if rebuilding was a feasible option for her. She explained that even though she owns her property, she is not allowed to put her trailer on her own property.
Mississippi Republic Free Press reporter Angie Estes stated, “It is difficult to rebuild here in Rolling Fork. In my opinion, I believe building permit fees should be waived until the emergency is lifted. Legally, we are allowed two minutes to speak at the board meeting where our concerns are addressed. The possible permit waiver was brought up at the recent meeting and it was ignored. … There are people here who told me they are expected to continue paying a mortgage on a concrete slab and the structure of a home no longer exists. If our displaced citizens are not brought home they will be forgotten and our local economy will eventually die.”
Running Out of Time
Estes explained that time is running out, as she stated, “The most critical period of a crisis of this magnitude is broken down into stages: 30 days, 90 days, and 180 days. The people of this town are living in the 120-day mark under 45-60 day conditions. There is a reason FEMA allows 18 months from the date of tornado destruction. They expect every effort to be made in a timely manner to get the displaced in temporary housing. This has not been the case here [in Rolling Fork]. We are in a state of emergency. The results we have been given by our political body are unconscionable. We need immediate help and there is a lack of transparency in our leadership.”
Blaming the Victims
A week before the August 1 city board meeting, the scheduled city board meeting was canceled because it lacked a quorum. Rolling Fork residents showing up were rallying and complaining about wanting to return home. Reportedly, a video posted on Facebook shows Anne Walker, the mayor’s wife, telling Barnes that Barnes “should have gotten insurance”. Mrs. Walker responded, saying, “That’s not the complete story. All of us are in this together and our family certainly cares.”
The Poor People’s Campaign Rep./Community Organizer for MFDP, Francine Jefferson stated, “We fight poverty; we don’t fight the poor.” MFDP President Cardell Wright reiterated, “If poor people had the resources to advance their lives, they would. If the municipal and county government would actively lead and do their best at ensuring that their community had everything needed to survive, the poor people would not be poor. In other words, if the city government would take the necessary steps to find adequate grant funding for the citizens and for the community at-large then the situation at hand would not be as dire.”
Students Need School
Other concerns expressed include displaced students who were allegedly forced to repeat the same grade after the disaster uprooted many children. Virgil spoke to the traumatic impact to a child being forced to repeat the same grade. Virgil emphasized the school districts have the discretion to consider all variables involving an emergency of this magnitude. Virgil stated: “How is it even possible to fail a displaced storm victim who is a student? It is difficult for me to fathom the thought of it. I pray that is not true.”
Rolling Fork citizens are hoping the board can agree to bring the displaced storm victims home for students who would have started school at South Delta.