Two years into their wedding, Talia and Malissa Williams were working diligently to lay the groundwork for the rest of their lives together. Both were taking online college courses that could have led to stable careers. They had taken tentative steps towards adopting a child.
The pair had talked of settling permanently in Rolling Fork, the tiny Mississippi Delta hometown where Malissa had followed Talia a few years earlier. But the medical billing and coding jobs they were studying for were probably not within an hour’s drive. Their old frame house – essentially the least worst option in a town with a limited supply of rental housing – has given them nothing but problems.
Then came the tornado.
The house, gone. Their belongings – cars, clothes, computers – gutted by winds reaching 170mph as the storm, deadliest to hit Mississippi in more than a decade, it ripped through the night of March 24th.
Any incentive for them to stay was also gone.
“My heart is in Rolling Fork, it will always be there,” Talia, 42, said as she stood outside the motel room, a 45-minute drive away, that serves as the couple’s temporary home. « But now that that’s happened, we have an opportunity, » she said.
That March night, as powerful storms pounded the Southeast, Rolling Fork was torn apart. Sixteen people were killed in the area. Dozens of families have been forced into the same position as Talia and Malissa: their homes destroyed, their lives turned upside down in an instant.
But just like Talia and Malissa, many people in the community had already been dealing with a slow-motion crisis for years, engulfing the entire Mississippi Delta in decades of disinvestment and decline.
The devastation of this other disaster is manifested in the crumbling homes and abandoned stores in the few areas of Rolling Fork left unscathed by the tornado, as well as the city’s neglected infrastructure, entrenched poverty, struggling schools, and troubling health statistics. The population of about 1,700 has been steadily declining for as long as most residents can remember.
« We were struggling to rebuild the city before the tornado, » said longtime resident Angela Hall Williams. She ticked off some of the things that had been missing from Rolling Fork long before the storm, including well-paying jobs, thriving stores, and any evidence of a hustle.
The Delta – a flat expanse wedged between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers in the northwestern part of the state – has long been defined by a contradiction. It is known for having some of the most fertile soils in the world, supporting cotton, soybean and corn crops that have been spread around the world for generations. But the generosity has rarely been shared in any meaningful way with the African-American families who make up much of the population in impoverished, emptied communities that dot the region, like Rolling Fork.
“You still see the vestiges of racial segregation, economic segregation,” said Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, in Cleveland, Miss. “We are inheriting decisions that were made years and years, decades and decades ago.
The most viable solution for many Delta residents was to leave. This was the case during the Great Migration, the mass exodus of African Americans from the South fleeing racist oppression and poverty during the 20th century. The population drain continued as increased mechanization of agriculture reduced the need for farm laborers and other types of industry fled the region.
Annie Lee Reed, 69, has spent most of her life in Rolling Fork but was relieved when her children left town. The distance was difficult, but the alternative was worse. If they stayed, she said, « I knew they weren’t going to do anything or they weren’t going to do anything. »
Some believe the tornado was not an escape push, but an opportunity for Rolling Fork. Soon after, Mayor Eldridge Walker assured the community that the city would « come back bigger and better than ever. »
His contention was that the storm had drawn attention and the prospect of investment to the city. Were it not for the tornado, President Biden would never have arrived and would have pledged his administration’s support. « Good Morning America » would never have been broadcast live by Rolling Fork, or solicited donations for the city from viewers.
As lucid as Mrs. Hall Williams was about what was plaguing Rolling Fork, she was among those who saw promise in town. « She’s coming back, » she said confidently.
Her home was badly damaged in the storm, leaving Mrs. Hall Williams and her husband to stay in a motel outside the city. But she was hatching plans to open a restaurant that served her favorite dishes of hers: macaroni and cheese, catfish, brisket. She would be an employer, someone who would help Rolling Fork survive, giving others incentives and resources to stay.
« I’m not giving up, » Ms Hall Williams said.
Henry Hood was much less optimistic. Two months after the tornado, attention to the city had already faded. The reassurances from elected officials were followed by a formal process for applying for government assistance that was so fraught with bureaucratic and other hurdles that even the best of intentions were no match.
So far, he and Ms. Reed, his wife, had received $650 in emergency federal aid to fix a damaged car and $1,200 from a church to repair their home, which had been passed down from Ms. Reed’s parents.
« It’s just going to be patched up, little by little, » Mr. Hood said of his home. « There won’t be a remodel and everything. »
His prediction: The same would be true of Rolling Fork.
The community was disheartened by a bleak list of destruction: City Hall, Post Office, Police Department, both Laundromats, Family Dollar Store, Convenience Store which also had a decent hot food menu.
There were also things that, while not essential to a functioning community, had profound value as landmarks of the home. Domonique Smith, growing up in Rolling Fork, noticed the loss of the pear tree in the backyard of a woman known as Miss Louise, which had long been picked up by neighborhood children.
Mrs. Smith’s mother’s house had apparently been vaporized, its contents having spread throughout the neighborhood. She found a unique photograph of hers by her father, who died when she was so young that she had no memories of him. A neighbor found a photo of Mrs. Smith in a cap and gown from when she was valedictorian in her class at South Delta High School.
He is now 35 and lives in Jackson, the state capital, nearly 90 minutes away. But she said she always found comfort in knowing that her mother’s home, a safe haven, was there in Rolling Fork.
She returned to Rolling Fork one recent Sunday because her family finally had something to celebrate. Her cousin, Ja’kiya Powell, had just graduated from high school, third in her class. The family gathered in another relative’s backyard, bragging about Ja’kiya’s accomplishments with a banner hung in front of her house.
Almost a year ago, Ja’kiya’s mother moved to Texas, but Ja’kiya stayed with relatives. She wanted a normal senior year with his friends, something different from her high school experience during the pandemic. The tornado hit the city just before her senior prom.
He was preparing to follow his mother and cousin out of Rolling Fork, starting at the University of Mississippi that fall.
« There was a little taste of something before the tornado, » said Ja’kiya, 18, of her hometown. « It’s nothing now. »
A shadow of Rolling Fork has popped up in the collection of motels on Route 82 in Greenville, about 40 miles away, where the Red Cross is still handing out three meals a day and a shuttle bus takes residents back to town to clean up their property or simply to be close to what’s left of home.
Talia and Malissa Williams have mostly stayed in their room on the first floor of the Days Inn, which they share with Pee Wee, an ancient but remarkably spry chihuahua, and Bailey, a much younger pit bull.
They’re waiting for government aid and possible temporary housing — a lead that will allow them to save money and plan for a future away from Rolling Fork. Talia still works as a home caregiver.
« It’s basically God, » said Malissa, 43. « Wherever his direction is taking us, that’s where we’re going. »
Perhaps it will be Tupelo, a city of 37,000 outside the Delta. Memphis, three hours north, might be an option, or somewhere in Texas where Malissa’s brother lives.
In quiet moments, a strange thought keeps popping up. It’s awkward to articulate, given the anguish surrounding the couple and all the upheaval in their own lives. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
« For me, it’s beautiful, » Malissa said. « I don’t know what else to say about it. »
There was the Nissan sedan parked outside their motel room, which they called their blessing. There were generous strangers, like the woman Malissa had met while shopping at the Goodwill store in Greenville. The woman handed Malissa $60, then she took it back and said God commanded her to offer a $100 bill instead.
Malissa even found gratitude for the storm that had destroyed her home. It was the push she and her wife needed, pointing them towards the possibility of something better, somewhere else.