The earthy smell of the Mississippi Delta gripped Charlie Weisinger’s psyche at an early age, and has haunted him ever since.
City faces tough rebuilding after tornado
Weisinger, 37, works at a bank to fund his farming addiction in Rolling Fork, where his family has grown cotton, corn, soybeans, rice or wheat since 1902.
“It’s something about the lifestyle, to be able to see something that you’ve been able to build from start to finish,” he said. “How strange it is that you can do everything right, and then Mother Nature can take it all away. And so it is a constant battle of man’s will versus nature’s, trying to see that you make the most of adversity.” How good can I do?
Weissinger’s farm was mostly spared when a deadly tornado tore through Rolling Fork last month as it carved a path of destruction through parts of western and northern Mississippi. But many in the predominantly black farming community were not so lucky.
The twister killed 13 of Rolling Fork’s roughly 1,700 residents, destroyed nearly 300 homes and businesses and laid waste to entire blocks, leaving many to wonder whether their small-town bonds and shared heritage would outlast each other. Will have enough to live and try to rebuild.
City faces tough rebuilding after tornado
Rolling Fork has a proud history, including blues legend Muddy Waters as a native son and a role in the invention of the teddy bear, after President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a tame bear during a 1902 hunting trip. The claim was made.
But the city and surrounding Sharkey County are among the poorest areas of the country and were already facing tough economic challenges before March 24, when 200 mph (320 kph) winds hit the community, destroying nearly every local business. closed the Volatile agricultural markets and a lack of jobs and new industry have kept Sharkey’s poverty rate at about 35%, nearly double Mississippi’s rate of 19% and nearly triple the nation’s rate of 12%.
“We want to keep our blues heritage. We still want to see some of Rolling Fork when it’s rebuilt,” said local Travis Alley as he visited the nearly 135-year-old Rolling Fork a few days after the tornado hit. A hard hit went into the road near the Methodist church. “We are the home of dirty water. We are the home of teddy bears. We want to see bottle trees in our yards to remind people of our rich heritage.
The destruction may seem inevitable to weary residents who have been working with a network of volunteers every day as the tornado to sort through mounds of debris. Some homes were lifted off the ground off their foundations. A bear statue commemorating Roosevelt’s visit still stands in the center of town, but the twister left its mark on hundreds of structures, including schools, clinics, and the local hospital.
The community has pulled together, but the whirlwind piled long-standing challenges like high inflation and rising interest rates on top of new ones. In a rebuilt Rolling Fork, residents want more jobs, better infrastructure and a fighting chance to keep people from fleeing.
“what we are going to do? That’s all I can think about,” said lifelong resident Willard Miller, 73, from his driveway as he looked out at their common neighborhood. “There are so many young people, they’re not coming back. And they have no reason other than that it’s their hometown and their parents are probably here.
Jerry Stevens owned the Cloverfield Laundromat in downtown Rolling Fork for 20 years. Its walls were blown away, but its 26 washers and dryers remain on the ground. Even if he does rebuild, he’s not sure many of his old customers will follow suit.
“I fear a lot of building won’t happen because inflation is just too high,” Stevens said. “The interest rates on the loan are really high. I’m thinking that when they get their insurance check, they can go somewhere else and buy a house that’s already standing.”
The Rolling Fork has been tested by the elements before. The effects of economic stagnation have been compounded by frequent heavy rains, which have turned petrified water into floodplains. In wet weather, water can go over levees and spill over fertile soil, swallowing up whatever poor crops are lying below.
In 2019, the region’s worst floods since 1973 forced some people out of their homes. But the city now faces a rebuilding effort unlike any other undertaking.
President Joe Biden, who visited the devastation, approved a disaster declaration for the state, freeing up federal funds for temporary housing, home repairs and debt relief to cover non-insured property damage. But there are concerns about how this aid will be spent.
“The citizens have lost everything,” said Calvin Stewart, a five-term alderman representing the city’s First Ward. “With all the funds people are trying to bring into the city, I need to make sure those funds reach the people most affected.”
Federal funds have come flooding back in Mississippi’s biggest corruption case ever. A welfare scandal has revealed how millions of dollars were funneled to the rich and powerful for the state’s most needy people.
Amid an undercurrent of distrust, said David Peters, professor of rural sociology at Iowa State University, communities that have strong social and civic institutions before disasters do a better job of allocating relief funds and retaining residents.
“When natural disasters like tornadoes or floods occur, communities take two different trajectories,” Peters said. “Communities that have strong social capital are quite resilient. The problem is, those rural communities are quite rare. In communities that lack social capital, federal funds are mismanaged. And often people leave.
Tasmin B., a teacher, is one of those planning to stay, even though the storm blew the roof off the house she bought in August. With schools in Rolling Fork closed, she said she had to take her five children out of town to keep busy.
“There’s nothing here for the kids. You don’t even have a YMCA,” said Bea. They’ve got a city pool, but it’s tiny. They had a baseball park. If you want to take the kids to the arcade or just want to have some good time, you have to make the trip.
When Charlie Weisinger, the banker-turned-farmer, needs a place to take his two sons, he brings them to the piece of farmland that has held his hooks for as long as he can remember.
Weisinger said, “My boys can decide to go anywhere in the world.” “But I get them down here, and they smell shit. It’ll follow them for the rest of their lives.