A day that began with clear, blue skies for LeeOtis Hubbard Gladney ended with destruction during nightfall, when a March 24 tornado swept through Amory. 

A nightmare followed the terror of that night as Gladney soon realized her path to recovery would not be easy. After experiencing insufficient help from her insurance company, and little from the federal government, she became one of thousands who have relied on volunteer assistance to recover from a disaster.

The night of the storm, Gladney sat in her brown recliner listening to the weather forecaster track the storm. She assumed the tornado would not cause substantial damage to Amory based on past times when the tornado did not touch down.

But once the forecaster started praying for Amory, reality sunk in. Gladney’s granddaughter called, asking if Gladney could make it to her house. Then the power went out. 

Gladney, who had knee surgery just a week before, struggled to move to find shelter in her home. 

Soon her grandson, Rafael, rushed into the house and assisted her, along with her cane, behind a couch. He placed her on the floor and threw a mattress off a bed to cover Gladney, her husband and her younger son, Leonard. 

A couple of minutes after Rafael left to protect his own family, sirens blared, high winds roared outside, and the carport’s tin roof in the backyard began to crumble. Leonard gripped Gladney’s hand for comfort as an unsettling atmosphere lingered over the family. 

“After a while, it was all over,” Gladney said as her voice trailed off. “It was all over.”

Residents are still in the process of rebuilding, 95 days after a series of deadly tornadoes and strong thunderstorms swept across Mississippi – killing at least 25 people and leaving a 100-mile trail of destruction. 

Gladney is one of those residents in Amory. 

The morning following the storm, her daughter, Tujuana Hampton, pleaded with Gladney to leave her home, but she refused. It took Hampton two days to get Gladney out of the house, insisting she could either walk or be carried. 

“When we got outside, she turned and looked at the damage to her house. She almost passed out,” Hampton stated. 

Two unrooted trees rested on top of Gladney’s home, parts of the ceiling were damaged, and the foundation of her home had shifted.

LeeOtis Hubbard Gladney at her Amory home on Thursday, June 15, 2023, where a recent tornado caused a large tree to fall on and severely damage her home. Gladney is in the process of moving out of her tornado damaged home. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

She said she found herself stuck with little to no assistance from FEMA and her insurer.

“FEMA told her since she has insurance and, if the company gave her over $40,000, then there was nothing they could do to help her. But $40,000 wouldn’t even cover half of what her house and yard (repairs) would cost,” Hampton told Mississippi Today.

FEMA spokesperson Mike Wade confirmed that if a survivor receives $41,000 from insurance, any further FEMA support is considered a duplication of assistance, which is not allowed.

FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program meets basic needs and supplements disaster recovery efforts, but it cannot replace insurance or compensate for all disaster losses. Therefore, the amount of financial assistance an individual or household may receive under FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program is limited. 

Michael Richmond-Crum, the director of personal lines for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said insurance companies have a responsibility to their customers to act urgently for covered losses following a disaster. However, many states are facing a growing affordability and availability crisis in property insurance markets.

“2022 was the eighth consecutive year in a row that the U.S. suffered at least 10 catastrophes, causing more than a billion dollars in losses each. Natural disaster losses from 2020-2022 in the U.S. exceeded $275 billion in 2022 dollars, which is the highest ever three-year total for U.S. insurers,” Richmond-Crum told Mississippi Today.

Even in federally declared disaster areas like Amory, residents like Gladney are left to rely on volunteer organizations for help in recovering.

On March 27, Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based evangelical Christian relief organization, deployed one disaster relief unit to Rolling Fork and another to Amory to assist homeowners impacted by the destruction.

Through its mobile home replacement program, 38 families from Mississippi towns and surrounding areas have been approved as of June 7. Six mobile homes were delivered to the families two months after the tornado, and others are actively in the application process. 

“A lot of the families we are helping are severely underinsured or don’t have the resources to get back into their house. They are still eligible to apply for the mobile home program,” Luther Harrison, vice president of North America Ministries, told Mississippi Today.

Partnering with local churches in the community, the organization was directed to residents in the neighborhoods that needed assistance. The organization tarped damaged roofs, cut up fallen trees, and cleared debris from yards.

“We know they lost most if not everything they had, and we’re just trying to show them Christ-like love as we go out into the community and help them,” Harrison said.

In Mississippi, Samaritan’s Purse was able to help 402 families with cleanup through the assistance of 1,145 volunteers that came out to serve. 

Hubbard was one of them.

“The Samaritan’s Purse came and cleaned up the yard for her. People that we don’t know came and fed us and made sure we had water,” Hampton said.

Operation BBQ Relief, a Missouri nonprofit established in May 2011, has provided over 10 million meals throughout the United States and internationally following natural disasters. They have served close to 85,000 meals in Mississippi deployments.

During the organization’s deployment to Amory on March 26 – April 3, they provided the community with 4,355 meals to the town of about 6,360 people. 

Heather Williams, the director of communications for Operation BBQ Relief, said the organization tries to relieve the burden and stress residents experience when uncertain of their next meal, as a result of the closure or damage to stores and restaurants.

“We want to provide one thing that they can count on when their life has been turned upside down: a hot meal,” Williams continued. “We value them.”

Head of Volunteer Services for Operation BBQ Relief Brian Polak said the organization fuels the residents both literally, with a hot meal, and figuratively, through a sense of community. 

Providing disaster relief is “one of the hardest things volunteers will ever love doing,” Polak said. There’s a willingness to help others which is what gets volunteers involved, but it’s the experiences that keep them involved, he said.

The organization has over 18,000 volunteers nationwide.

“Volunteer agencies bring varied services to those in need, instead of those in need having to seek out the assistance, which can be difficult for a multitude of reasons during those first hours, days, or weeks,” Polak stated.

In Mississippi areas, where resources are already stretched thin after natural disasters, it is often difficult to contact someone who can help. And even when assistance is provided, it can be insufficient. 

Tujuana Hampton (left) with her mother LeeOtis Hubbard Gladney at Gladney’s tornado damaged home in Amory, Thursday, June 15, 2023. . Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Gladney has been able to move into a temporary residence of her own, after leaving Hampton’s home – 83 days after the storm.

Gladney’s home is cleared on the outside, but it remains unlivable on the inside, she said. Even though she received assistance from volunteer organizations, she refused to let them clean inside her home because of her reliance on insurance.

“I’ve been hoping and praying for Alfa to come around and do me right,” Gladney said of her insurance company.

According to Gladney, Alfa Corp. won’t condemn the home – determine the home is no longer fit for human inhabitation – because insurance would have to pay for the estimated value to rebuild her home. Instead, it is stating the conditions of the house were “pre-existent,” Gladney said. 

An Alfa Corp. spokesperson stated the claims department couldn’t comment on individual claims.

“Now, she’s stuck,” Hampton said. “Her whole life was in that house. And now, that’s it.”

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Pamela “Pam” Dankins is currently a 2023 summer intern at Mississippi Today. She graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s degree in print and digital journalism in May 2023. Her work has been published in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, Miss., Mississippi Free Press in Jackson, Miss., Monroe Journal in Amory, Miss., and The Reflector student newspaper, in Starkville, Miss. Throughout her academic career, she received the Stephen D. Lee Scholar award, became a member of Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and a member of Gamma Beta Phi Society. In her free time, Pam writes/publishes poetry books, listens to music ranging from K-Pop to Classical, and relaxes. She is an Amory native.