Nate Richards tries to salvage what is left at his sister's home after Friday night's tornado in Silver City, Miss., Saturday, March 25, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Legislative leaders, negotiating a state budget during the final days of the 2023 session, said they intend to provide funds to help with recovery efforts from Friday’s tornadoes that tore a path of death and destruction through the Delta and north Mississippi.

The storm has thus far resulted in 21 deaths in Mississippi and destroyed buildings stretching from the south Delta to the Amory area in northeast Mississippi.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, was among the legislative leaders who visited Rolling Fork that suffered massive destruction. On Sunday he said legislators “stand ready to provide whatever monetary resources we can to help them.”

He said Sunday he was first told by Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials $5 million might be needed to provide the state’s share to match the federal funds that will be available as a result of President Joe Biden issuing an emergency declaration. Later in the day, as more research was conducted, Gunn said $8 million might be needed. But he said as the recovery effort continues that number is fluid.

Gunn said the funds could be incorporated in the budget bill for MEMA. Unless a rules suspension is passed, legislators face a Monday night deadline to pass the appropriations bills to fund state government.

“I don’t think money will be the issue,” Gunn said. “I think the issue is how we help them get their lives back … I saw devastation like I have never seen before.”

Another area where the state might provide help, Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, said, is to the local schools. He said he has been talking with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House leaders about the state paying the insurance deductibles for schools that were damaged by the storm both in the south Delta and in north Mississippi.

DeBar said there also could be a state fund created to provide immediate help for the schools until they receive the federal money they are in line to get because of the president’s emergency declaration.

Hosemann’s office said work is being done to help local school districts have locations as soon as possible where the displaced students can return to school.

While the storm has diverted some of the attention away from legislative leaders’ efforts to reach a budget deal, that work is continuing.

DeBar said he was “very disappointed” to read a Mississippi Today story on Saturday that quoted Gunn and other House leaders saying they will not agree to place additional money in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program that provides the state’s share of the needs for local school districts.

DeBar said if lawmakers put more money into education, it should be placed in the MAEP formula since it provides funds for basic needs, such as teacher salaries, custodians and lunchroom workers.

He said more money is needed in the formula because inflation has skyrocketed in recent years, yet the formula has been essentially level funded.

DeBar said Senate leaders will continue to push for additional MAEP funding this year, and he said he would resume that fight in the 2024 session if an agreement cannot be reached this year.

Editor’s note: This story originally reported that officials estimated there were 25 fatalities as the result of the March 24 tornadoes. On March 27, the Mississippi Emergency Management Association downgraded the total number of deaths to 21.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.