Rolling Fork, Miss. – There is no funeral home where the dead can be buried.
The few restaurants or food stalls in town have not reopened, so many people have their only food coming from roadside volunteers. If houses are still standing, many times their occupants are waiting for electricity or water. If the car still drives, at least one of its windows is probably blown out. Residents are lucky if they fill a prescription. Schools are still closed.
Officials have vowed in recent days that Rolling Fork — hit by tornadoes that killed 13 people in the city and surrounding Sharkey County last week — will come back better than ever. But in a poor, rural area where life was already being lived on the margins, getting down to the basics of food, water and shelter would seem almost insurmountable without an immediate solution in sight.
“It affects every individual that lives here,” said Natalie Perkins, Sharkey County’s emergency management coordinator and editor and publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot, a weekly newspaper in Rolling Fork.
In some cases, families are starting over, their homes and businesses destroyed by the hurricane. For some, the first hurdle is the most painful: waiting for two funeral homes to get up and running so they can make arrangements for their slain relatives.
“I’m going to see a therapist after what I went through,” said Evelyn Macon, who was staying in a donated hotel room in Greenville, Miss., about 40 miles from Rolling Fork. Her home was destroyed, and she said she was overwhelmed by the uncertainty of what was going to happen.
“We have nothing,” said Diane Shelton, her sister-in-law.
Rolling Fork was the community hardest hit by the storm system, which cut a 170-mile path of destruction across Mississippi and Alabama, killing at least 26 people.
The Mississippi Delta, a wedge of fertile farmland between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers that has grown cotton for generations, has grown accustomed to harsh weather conditions. Numerous storms have darkened the skies, and flooding has been a constant concern for years.
“We had a hurricane, don’t get me wrong,” said Arlon Derrick Smith, who grew up in Rolling Fork and helped relatives and their neighbors after the storm. The terrain, he noted, was particularly vulnerable to cyclones, with its spread of open, flat pancake-like farmland. “They ride on flat ground and tear things up,” he said. “But none of this disaster.”
Tornadoes in the South, especially in Mississippi, are not uncommon this time of year. said Dr. Harold Brooks, senior research scientist at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. “They get stuff all year round.”
Climatically, Cyclones occur in the south from March to April. The probability of cyclones in the south increases from March to mid-April, before seasonal weather patterns change, with cyclones becoming more likely across the plains in late April, May and June.
At the Rolling Fork Motel, DeMarcus Jackson knows how far back he can go.
He and his family — his brother, his nephews, his cousins — have been huddled in rooms there since their home was destroyed in December. A hurricane in the nearby town of Anguilla.
“It’s tiring,” said Mr. Jackson said. “You have already lost everything, come back and be in something else.”
Now, his family, along with others displaced by last week’s storm, are stuck in cramped and stuffy rooms without electricity. The water from the taps had very low pressure. The children were restless. Everyone was there.
“It feels like a prison,” said his brother, Deontre Jackson, sitting outside in a chair. He was unsure of what would come next – for him or for the community that had become his temporary home.
The two-lane highway that runs through the city was littered Monday with indistinguishable piles of metal and wood and the carcasses of mangled cars.
Chuck’s Dairy Bar, a longtime restaurant in Rolling Fork, is now nothing more than its slab and battered metal walk-in freezer, which employees huddled inside to ride out the hurricane. Behind it was a destroyed mobile home park, where the wreckage — a wig, a mop, clothes, a slow cooker, trucks — told the story of the upside down and lost lives.
In other areas, houses were swept off their foundations, and some trees that had been rooted in yards for generations were uprooted from the ground. “We’ll be at the right address, the house will be three doors down,” said John Gebhardt, a professor of military science at the University of Mississippi, who helped organize the rescue and shelter and resource center.
“The night I got here, I cried while I was working,” he said. “There were tears associated with sadness and tears associated with pride.”
Outsiders rush into Rolling Fork, handing out food and running to Walmart to buy T-shirts and underwear. Carolyn Kilgore drives back and forth with her husband from outside the state capital, Jackson, 80 miles away, to deliver meals.
“You need a plate, little man,” she said to a boy playing outside a Rolling Fork motel.
On the menu today: bacon, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips and sports drinks. Clamshell containers filled the back of the pickup truck they were driving around town.
“We are trying to reach people who cannot reach us,” Ms. Kilgore said.
Shelter is open at the old National Guard Armory in Rolling Fork, and there is also an open shelter. Those who did not leave town wanted to be as close to family or their properties as possible. Ms. Kilgore observed single-family homes that were overflowing with extended families.
Deloris Kelly’s home was largely spared. The tornado ripped through the back of her house, leaving a hole under her back door that she covered with a blanket. She was struggling to keep the front window of her house from falling down. “This tape doesn’t stick,” she said loudly.
Volunteers served ham sandwiches and snacks. He pushed his 5-year-old granddaughter to thank them. Mrs Kelly, 52, worried about her. The girl asked her if the cyclone was coming again. Mrs Kelly was also worried about the rolling fork. She didn’t know how it would turn out.
“It takes a lot,” she said.
Even before the hurricane, Rolling Fork, like much of the Mississippi Delta, was struggling. Over the years the population has dwindled, driven out by poverty and lack of economic opportunity. State and central authorities have promised to inject resources. City leaders described hope for revival. But Ms. Macon found it hard to be optimistic.
“It’s going to take the hand of God,” Ms. Megan said, “to put everything back together on a rolling fork.”
The physical destruction, as devastating as it was, was compounded by the emotional toll as people tried and failed to take their minds off the horror of riding out the storm.
On Sunday, Ms. Shelton said she could finally get some rest.
Linda Short, the mayor of Meyersville, another town in Sharkey County, was at the clinic in the old armory in Rolling Fork when he looked at her and said, “I know you can’t lay in bed.” Ms. Short got her a room at a hotel in Greenville, 40 miles away.
There, she had a bed, air conditioning, electricity and running water. She was safe. How comfortable she was a month after back surgery. Her sleep was perfect.
“It doesn’t really let you relax,” he said. “You can hear more and see more.”
As soon as she closed her eyes, she turned to the rolling fork.
Judson Jones contributed reporting