ROLLING FORK – Many of the survivors of the devastating March tornado in Rolling Fork are still uncertain of how they’ll enter the next phase of their lives. They only know, over four months later, that it won’t happen soon.
Jannett Barnes, 63, keeps her belongings in the trunk of her car while she sleeps on her sister’s couch in Anguilla, just north of Rolling Fork.
“Everything I own is in the backseat of my car, my trunk,” she said. “It doesn’t look like I’m going to have anywhere to call home soon, so it’s not looking good at all.”
Barnes, like, according to Census data, 41% of the city was a renter, making it harder to move back to where she lived. While property owners can work directly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to have a temporary mobile home brought to them, renters have to go through their landlords, or wait for FEMA to find other available land.
“The house was destroyed, totally,” she said. “I asked (her landlord), ‘Could I put a trailer house here?’ I rented from there for about 10 years. And she said no. People are just mean, just don’t care.”
The landlord didn’t respond to phone calls from Mississippi Today for this story.
Dianne Shelton, 53, ran into a similar issue: after having to leave when the tornado wrecked her home, Shelton said her landlord sold the underlying property.
“Ain’t nobody doing nothing for me,” she said. Shelton, whose only income is from disability payments, said she hasn’t been able to get any financial aid from FEMA, and the agency’s deadline for its Individual Assistance program has passed.
FEMA told Mississippi Today it has so far approved 96 households in Sharkey County – where Rolling Fork is the county seat – for temporary homes, meaning that they meet the agency’s criteria. But even after approval, the agency has to ensure there’s a suitable property to put the trailer on. So far, only 12 of those approved households have been allowed to move in. Displaced survivors can stay in the trailers for up to 18 months.
“FEMA continues to work with disaster survivors to determine their best temporary housing option, which in turn will allow them to work toward a permanent housing solution,” Jim Homstad, a spokesperson with the agency, said in a statement.
Even some of those who did own their homes have been frustrated with how long the process has drawn out. Cynthia Prestianni, 62, lost her house of almost 41 years in the tornado.
“That was going to be my forever home,” Prestianni said. “It was paid for, it was ours.”
She said she first met with FEMA assistance officials in April, and it wasn’t until last week when she got the go-ahead to have a trailer put on her land.
“I called about every two or three days, ‘What’s the status of the trailer?’” she said on Aug. 3. “And I’m agitated. Tomorrow will be 19 weeks since the tornado.”
City officials, though, are urging residents to be patient.
“I’m trying to get people to understand that you got an almost EF-5 tornado that tore up 85% of the city,” said City Alderman Undray Williams. “(Residents) think it should come back in six months, eight months. Ain’t no way, that’s not going to happen. It might be two, three, four, five years before you get back to some normalcy.”
He added that, amid organizing the city’s rebuilding effort, city officials are dealing with their own issues: three of the city’s board members, including himself, lost their homes in the tornado. Williams, who inherited his home from his family about five years ago, was trapped in the rubble of his house until being rescued, as he told Reuters in March. Since then, he and hundreds of other survivors across the state who lost their homes have been moving from hotel to hotel.
In the week after the March tornados that also struck Carroll, Humphreys and Monroe counties, there were about 900 survivors staying in shelters, including at least 300 from Rolling Fork, according to the Red Cross. Now, those numbers have fallen to around 260 total, including 65 from Rolling Fork, and since March the Red Cross has moved them into hotels across north Mississippi. The nonprofit told Mississippi Today that its case workers are working with each of those survivors to find long-term housing solutions.
Williams, who just moved into a FEMA trailer a week ago, said the city officials have been meeting in mobile offices since March, and it wasn’t until the last few days that the wrecked city hall building was torn down.
As residents and officials alike navigate the bureaucracy involved in claiming assistance, their trauma still lingers.
“You tell people what happened, but they don’t know the real feeling,” Williams said.
For Rolling Fork, where one in five residents live below the poverty line, FEMA has approved over $5 million in Individual Assistance to survivors, and over $6 million to Sharkey County for debris removal.