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‘Like you were unzipping a jacket’: How survivors barely missed tornado damage, and their next steps for rebuilding


‘Like you were unzipping a jacket’: How survivors barely missed tornado damage, and their next steps for rebuilding

Mar 31, 2023 | 9:26 am ET
By Alex Rozier/Mississippi Today
A truck rests in what is left of Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rollingfork after a tornado devasted the area Friday night, Saturday, March 25, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

A truck rests in what is left of Chuck’s Dairy Bar in Rollingfork after a tornado devasted the area Friday night, Saturday, March 25, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

ROLLING FORK – At first, Eddie Jones’ two 5-year-old twin daughters didn’t want to stay with his mother last Friday night. 

But after she insisted, the girls complied, and at around 6:30 p.m. they made the short four-block trip to their grandmother’s house. 

Now by himself in his Rolling Fork home, Jones, a 50-year-old retired Army veteran, anchored his attention to the television, where he was tracking some NBA wagers he placed on a fantasy sports app. With his earpiece clipped in, Jones was talking with his buddies about the night’s games when he heard a strange whistling sound from outside at around 8 p.m. 

The whistling turned to a roar, and Jones bolted for the bathroom. He ran so fast he banged his leg on the bathtub before he laid down inside it.

He knew what it was, because a couple hours earlier he saw an alert on his phone about a possible tornado in the area. At the time, he didn’t think much of it, figuring it was just another one of the small storms he was used to. There might be some lightning, some power outages, but things would be fine by the morning, Jones told himself. 

“It’s pretty regular around here,” he said later, recalling the warning on his phone. “But things were different this time.”

When asked if he heard a tornado siren or any other kind of alarm from outside his home, Jones said he didn’t hear anything. 

Sharkey County Supervisor Bill Newsom confirmed to Mississippi Today that a siren in Rolling Fork wasn’t working when the storm arrived on Friday. On the county website, a notice about the siren’s repairs says that, in the event of a tornado, a patrol car would drive through the city with its sirens on to warn citizens. 

Jones said he didn’t hear that either. Rolling Fork officials couldn’t be reached before this story published. Newsom said a Georgia-based company called him after the storm and said it would install a new siren for free. 

While stationed in his bathtub, Jones heard the windows around the house pop. 

“The glass was shooting everywhere, and my walls started cracking,” Jones remembered. “It was just like you were unzipping a jacket.”

Laying down, he felt the house lift up into the air and settle back onto the ground. 

When the commotion outside died down, Jones looked up to see that his bathroom door had flown off, and his clothes were scattered around the house. He climbed around his belongings and tried to get outside, but the wind was still holding his front door shut. Instead, he ducked outside the one window that wasn’t shattered and made his way to his mother’s house where his daughters were.

Fortunately, her house just four blocks away was untouched.

Jones went back in the morning to check on the damages: The roof was cracked open, tree limbs protruded out of the side of his living room and his car’s windshield. The entire house had shifted a few feet off of its foundation. 

But what struck Jones the most was looking to his daughters’ room. He noticed that the wind, after breaking the window, blew debris inside and across the room, shattering a mirror on the opposite wall. 

“Had my girls been (home), asleep in their bed, they wouldn’t be here,” Jones said.  

Jones and his daughters are still staying with his mother. He said the water pressure at her house finally returned to normal as of Wednesday, a relief after washing himself with baby wipes the last few days, and the power came back on Tuesday. 

Now, Jones and hundreds of other Mississippians wait to see what relief will come from the government and charities to help them rebuild.

‘It’s going to be a mess‘

Rolling Fork is in Sharkey County, which, with about 4,000 residents, is the second least-populated county in the state. After last weekend’s tornadoes, about a quarter of the county is now displaced from their homes, Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney estimated.

Because President Joe Biden approved an emergency disaster declaration, victims are eligible for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help pay for temporary housing as well as to rebuild their homes. 

The program, FEMA’s Individual Assistance, can kick in if a victim doesn’t have insurance covering storm damage or if the insurance doesn’t cover all of the damages. Victims can also apply for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration. Receiving an SBA loan and its interest rates are subject to a victim’s credit history, among other factors. 

Chaney said it’ll be a challenge to get all of the resources needed from the government to rebuild Sharkey County, where 27% of residents live in poverty and many homes are uninsured.

“For the individuals, the lower income population, they’re not insured,” he said. “A lot of them live in trailers. It’s going to be a mess, it’s going to be hard. The government is going to have to really step in this time.”

Chaney estimated that, between people’s homes and county infrastructure, Sharkey County could be dealing with over $200 million in uninsured losses. 

“I’ve never been so stressed in all of my life. I’m usually a strong old woman, but I ain’t that no more,” said Collie Barnes, an 81-year-old lifelong resident of Anguilla, which is just north of Rolling Fork. “I’m just glad to be alive.”

Barnes took refuge with her neighbors, who initially wanted to stay home, in a nearby church after hearing about the storm on the news. She went back to see her porch was missing and water was leaking through the roof, but she realized she was relatively fortunate.

“(Her neighbor) said, ‘I better see if I got a house,’ and she didn’t. It was gone,” Barnes said. 

On Wednesday, Barnes and others came to the town hall in Anguilla – which itself is still recovering from a tornado last December – where a FEMA official sat outside, helping victims apply for assistance. 

The state hasn’t yet released an official count of total people displaced. While as of Tuesday less than 30 people were staying in shelters, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, a motel in Greenville is giving over 100 of its rooms for victims to stay in, the Clarion Ledger reported. FEMA is also placing victims in nearby hotel rooms, an agency spokesperson said, adding that anyone affected should either call 800-621-3362 or visit disasterassistance.gov for help.

On Thursday, MEMA gave the latest information on damaged homes, deaths and injuries by county:

  • Bolivar County: 9 damaged homes
  • Carroll County: 24 damaged homes, 5 injuries, 3 deaths
  • Humphreys County: 55 damaged homes, 15 injuries, 3 deaths
  • Itawamba County: 1 damaged home
  • Lafayette County: 2 damaged homes
  • Lee County: 10 damaged homes
  • Monroe County: 1,476 damaged homes, 55 injuries, 2 deaths
  • Montgomery County: 49 damaged homes
  • Grenada County: 1 damaged home
  • Prentiss County: 1 damaged home
  • Panola County: 31 damaged homes
  • Sharkey County: 255 damaged homes, 15 injuries, 13 deaths

MEMA spokesperson Malary White said that, as of Tuesday, all missing persons had been accounted for. 

So far, FEMA has approved Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe and Sharkey Counties to apply for Individual Assistance. MEMA spokesperson Malary White said more counties could be added as damage assessments continue. 

Those counties, as well as Attala, Chickasaw, Clay, Grenada, Holmes, Issaquena, Itawamba, Lee, Leflore, Lowndes, Montgomery, Sunflower, Washington and Yazoo counties are also eligible to apply for SBA disaster loans

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.