Skip to main content

Two months after deadly tornado, Rolling Fork residents wonder about the town’s future

Email share
Much of downtown Rolling Fork remains destroyed following the deadly March 24 tornado.
Michael McEwen / MPB News

On the night of March 24, a powerful tornado struck the town of Rolling Fork, an agricultural hub in Mississippi’s south Delta. The storm, with wind speeds that measured up to 170 miles per hour, reduced entire neighborhoods and much of the civil infrastructure to rubble.

Now more than two months after, the recovery process in the town of less than 2,000 is increasingly characterized by debris piles, empty streets and yard signs advertising contractors. Some residents who were either displaced or who left don’t plan to return, stoking concern about the town’s future economic viability.

Michael McEwen

Rolling Fork


What was lost

More than 20 people were killed as the tornado cut a path nearly 60-miles across western Mississippi. It was part of a larger storm system then moving eastward across the United States and one of multiple tornados reported that day across the southeast. 

With Rolling Fork’s city hall, community hospital and emergency response stations all destroyed, first responders from nearby towns were forced to triage the injured in the parking lot of the John Deer dealership that night. 

“I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life — I’ve seen it on the news, but never, ever in person,” said Barbie Anderson, a resident of Rolling Fork since 1959. “I had all my windows knocked out. My shutters, my posts and my house kind of shattered a little. I have three bedrooms where I have to get the ceilings done, walls replaced and I have to get my floor done.” 

While Anderson’s house is still standing, her sister, who lived next door, lost everything. Such is the random nature of the destruction brought on by tornados, both unpredictable and often unavoidable. Where some houses received significant to little damage, others are completely gone. 

Just a few blocks away, east of downtown Rolling Fork, a large grass clearing is strewn with family mementos and household appliances. Where debris piles have been cleared remain concrete slabs that once served as the foundation for dozens of brick homes. 

Otis Anderson, who was born in Rolling Fork, described the changes from the front porch of his home.

“Where those trees is bent down over there — all those was brick houses. I think it’s two houses standing over there now, just two, and only one is livable. There was a big house on the corner right there, guy had insurance but didn’t have enough to build back,” Anderson said.

The tornado destroyed neighborhoods and much of Rolling Fork's businesses, including here, where a demolition crew is clearing what used to be the town florist to it's foundation.
Michael McEwen / MPB News

What comes next

The other side of the clearing near Otis Anderson’s home is where Highway 61 passes through Rolling Fork and where a number of the town’s businesses once stood. 

Tracing its path through the Delta, 61 has both cultural and historical significance to the region. Best known as the Blues Highway, the road has served both the spread of Mississippi’s indigenous music through the country and the migration of African Americans fleeing Jim Crow laws and sharecropping for cities further north. 

The destructive tornado has made life even more difficult in this economically struggling area. Mississippi’s Delta has long been one of the country’s poorest regions, and Anderson’s concern is that he might be witnessing a different migration along the great river road — this time due to the tornado. 

“Well you don’t see anybody. That’s 61 right there — I can sit in my yard right now and count the cars that’s going north and south on 61. But pretty much a lot of people’s gone and some people say they’re not coming back,” he said. “I've never seen anything like that before. Matter of fact, everybody I talk to, people that's 85 years old, said they'd never seen nothing like that.”

An uncertain future

In total, 176 families lost their homes and are now living in shelters, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Roughly 135 qualify for direct housing assistance from both FEMA and MEMA, but MEMA executive director Stephen McCraney says the displacement has over-extended the region’s agricultural economy, just as planting season is set to begin.

The workforce has been spread to Greenville and to Vicksburg, and agriculture is still going on and they need the workers back. So you’ve got, maybe instead of a 20-minute drive to work in the fields and do all the agricultural stuff you need to do, you’re now driving an hour-and-a-half on the same wages you were making before,” McCraney said.

Rolling Fork's downtown district, once defined by local businesses housed in historic brick buildings, is now all but abandoned. Inside storefronts, groceries and merchandise remain scattered among collapsed walls and exposed wiring. Streets leading into downtown are closed, and according to MEMA, more than 1.2 million cubic yards of debris have been collected from Rolling Fork in the first stage of debris pickup. 

Now with more than $20 million in federal relief funds available to spend on recovery efforts, McCraney says the difficulty is determining how long it will take to rebuild.

“What do we look like at 18 months from now? How are we going to rebuild like the Mississippi coast after Katrina? That’s really what those towns are — Amory on one side and Rolling Fork on the other. How are we going to build those back and those communities, how do they want them to look?”  

Some of those federally-funded projects include restoring the town’s crumpled water tower and government buildings. McCraney also says he’s working with state leaders to implement “safe room” technology to two of Rolling Fork’s three schools that received significant damage. 

“This is going to be years. I can’t say two or three  I would have said Katrina in 10 years we would have had it done, and we didn’t. And so we’re consistently working with the locals on finishing those projects up,” he said. 

As Otis Anderson continues to look over the damage from his front porch, a yellow crop duster cuts low across farmland, that, before the storm, he previously couldn’t see behind homes and trees. It’s here where the toll of the tornado is most apparent; neighbors gone and the shade suddenly missing under the high Delta sun. 

Retired for 20 years after moving back to his birthplace, he worries what the destruction could mean for Rolling Fork's economic future. 

“Are we going to have a high enough tax base to support existing businesses? How are they going to pay those salaries? Because that house right there was paying taxes every year, and that house over there was paying taxes,” said Anderson.  

“All those vacant houses was paying taxes, so you don't have that tax money coming in no more. So, I mean, somebody's got to pay the people or they’re going to have to lay them off. So how are you going to generate income? Because you don't have a factory here, no type of factories at all. You know, you don't have anything here. Nothing to look forward to.”