President Joe Biden, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, speaks during a briefing in Rolling Fork, Miss., Friday, March 31, 2023. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, third from right, his wife Elee Reeves and Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker, right, listen. The President traveled to Rolling Fork to survey the damage after a deadly tornado and severe storm moved through the area. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Joe Biden flew into Jackson on Air Force One before making his way to Rolling Fork on a chopper Friday. He was joined by First Lady Jill Biden and welcomed by Governor Tate Reeves and First Lady Elee Reeves.
President Biden spent several hours on the ground. He met with emergency management personnel, workers and volunteers, and residents impacted by a deadly tornado that carved a path of destruction across Mississippi just one week ago.
Biden standing before piles of debris and wreckage on Walnut Street, addressed a crowd that had assembled.
“Jill and I are here to show our support. Unfortunately, I’ve been to too many sites like this over the last two years around the country,” said Biden. “I always see the same thing in America, when a neighborhood is in trouble, the whole neighborhood comes to help.”
The President relayed a conversation he’d had with an impacted family who shared that no sooner had the storm subsided than the Red Cross and neighbors were out front of their home offering a helping hand. Biden said “there’s a lot of pain and it’s hard to believe in a moment like this, but the community is going to be rebuilt and built back better than before.”
“The resilience of this community has been remarkable and I just want you to know as you fight through this, you’re not alone. The American people will be with you, they’ll help you through it and so will I,” said Biden. Earlier in the day the President told reporters in the White House travel pool that “we have to let people know there’s reason for them to have hope, especially for people who have lost someone.”During his remarks, the President read aloud the named of 13 people who lost their lives in the storm from Rolling Fork. A total of 25 Mississippians perished in the storm. The names of the victims in Rolling Fork are: Melissa Pierce, Lonnie Pierce, Mary Bush, Deloris Harris, David Moore, Phyllis Maxey, Daryl Purvis, Linda Herman, Erica Moore, Brenda Odoms, April Johnson, Lavetta Herman, and Wanda Kelly.
The federal government has pledged to cover the full cost of the state’s emergency measures for the next 30 days and President Biden said they were not leaving until the job was done.
Governor Reeves Says He’s “Damn Proud” to be a Mississippian
Biden was introduced by Gov. Reeves, who took the moment to explain the gravity of the storm and to express pride in Mississippi.
“For those of you from around the country, that are watching now, please understand that this storm, and what you’re seeing behind me, this storm entered our state on our western border, right over the Mississippi River, not very far from here, but it didn’t actually exit our state until the northeastern border over the Tennessee-Tombigbee River,” said Reeves.
“So what you’re seeing behind me today is illustrative of what you would see if we were standing in Silver City or if we were standing in Amory or if we were in Carroll County or Montgomery County or Panola County. This storm was devastating to these communities.”
Reeves went on to describe two sets of emotions—heartbreak and inspiration. In explaining why he was inspired, the Governor noted “people from across Mississippi, and people from across America, Mr. President, have shown up and they’ve shown out. They’ve shown up to help people in need.” Reeves added that he was “damn proud to be a Mississippian,” and expressed gratitude to the President both for working to expedite the disaster declaration and visiting Rolling Fork.
Network of Relief Organizations Assembles to Help
While the Clarion Ledger reported that Friday was the first day Gov. Reeves had been back to Rolling Fork since his initial visit after the storm, Friday actually marked the second day in a row the Governor was present in the community.
On Thursday, Reeves traveled to Rolling Fork to spend time with first responders and disaster relief organizations. It would have been an idyllic day—blue skies, temperatures in the mid-70s, with a cool breeze—but for the reminders of devastation and heartache all around Reeves and the gaggle of reporters that followed.
The Governor’s tour started at South Delta Middle School in Anguila, where much of the area’s relief efforts are stationed. Inside the school’s auditorium, a vast assortment of donated goods, from food and water to clothes and toiletries, were available for tornado victims.
Workers with the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse, Mississippi Emergency Management, and Veterans Affairs all gathered to welcome Gov. Reeves.
The Governor thanked relief workers before being guided by John Brown, Mississippi Executive Officer for the Red Cross through all of the relief offerings available at the school.
In addition to supplies in South Delta Middle School’s auditorium, the gymnasium had been set up as a shelter. Only a few cots remained, as most displaced residents have now found alternative arrangements with family and friends. On the sidewalk outside of the school, Tide had set up mobile units to wash and dry clothes as part of its “Tide Loads of Hope” program.
Gov. Reeves spoke to the press about the state and federal relief effort underway. He also talked about the incredible generosity of everyday Mississippians and relief organizations. One note of encouragement he gave to citizens who want to help is to think about the relief effort in a long-term way. The Governor explained that people’s interest in helping is frequently immediately after a natural disaster. He said that often it takes time for the true needs of the community to emerge and that the greatest opportunity to help could be weeks or months away, when attention on the disaster has waned.
Businesses and Individuals Helping Neighbors
From Anguila, the convoy on Thursday traveled into the heart of Rolling Fork to South Delta Elementary School off Maple Street. As a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I still vividly remember returning home after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Entering Rolling Fork brought back some of those emotions.
While the geographic scale is different, the severity of the damage is eerily reminiscent. Cliché as it may be, it looked like a bomb had gone off in downtown. Trees were mowed down like blades of grass. Homes either completely destroyed or blown out. Tangled metal as far as the eye can see. Downed power lines.I spent time Thursday with Shannon Daley, program officer at Samaritan’s Purse. The organization founded by Franklin Graham had set up multiple locations to field requests for help in cleaning up and rebuilding homes. Shannon told me that they had already received over 200 requests and that they would be on the ground for several weeks.
But it’s not just non-profits making a difference. In today’s culture, distrust and antipathy for corporate America are commonplace. It’s become easy to hate success. But what I found at South Delta Elementary School and across the community is emblematic of an often untold story—corporate America not only does a lot of good by hiring Americans and providing needed goods and services to consumers, but does a lot to help when people are in need.
At South Delta Elementary School, Wal-Mart and Tyson were working collaboratively to feed citizens of Rolling Fork and the surrounding communities. Workers in Wal-Mart shirts and Tyson “Meals that Matter” shirts lined the street in front of the school. Massive smokers were rolling cooking meat. Local residents could pass through and pick up both a hot meal and a box of food.
Pat Bourke at Tyson, said that the meat producer committed to donate 500,000 pounds of protein in response to the Mississippi Tornado.
“We’ll donate that product at our two feeding sites in Silver City and Rolling Fork. The balance of the product is distributed locally to other feeding organizations that are responding. Tyson will also donate to the Mississippi Food Network and other Feeding America Food Banks in order to support their agency partners well after we demobilize,” said Bourke.
He explained, “Tyson Foods has been responding to disasters for years. We created the Meals that Matter program in 2012. We’re a food manufacturer, so feeding communities in the wake of disaster is our natural response. We view it as an obligation not only to our communities, but our neighboring communities, as well.”
Rickey Oliver and Greg Carter head up Wal-Mart’s disaster relief efforts in Rolling Fork. Oliver, a native of Brookhaven and resident of Delhi, Louisiana has been a Wal-Mart employee for 25 years. Greg Carter, from Seymour, Indiana, has been with the company for 33 years. Both are truck drivers.
Oliver became interested in disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. Carter, in 2012, after a tornado hit Henryville, Indiana. After their initial experience with disaster relief, the two men approached Wal-Mart about building a grill trailer that would allow them to travel and serve food to those in need. Wal-Mart agreed and the two men have been traveling the country when disaster hits ever since. They are joined by teams of Wal-Mart employees who volunteer for deployment.
Carter said, “It’s a God thing and you can quote me on that.” He said that he felt like the Holy Spirit had been working on him to do some good and God just kept opening doors to make it happen.
The Wal-Mart and Tyson partnership has been averaging over 3,000 meals a day served since arriving in Rolling Fork.
A Personal Note
I have been up in Rolling Fork for the last two days and I’ve seen a lot that inspires, even in the face of tremendous devastation. Utility companies like Entergy, Atmos, C Spire and AT&T are working around the clock to repair downed lines and restore service where possible. Food and water are being handed out around every corner, by giants like Wal-Mart and Tyson and by single-man food trucks. The Salvation Army and Red Cross are on the ground meeting basic needs. Samaritan’s Purse is signing people up for property repairs and the Cajun Navy has chainsaw crews deployed. Neighbors are on neighbors’ roofs applying tarps. Yesterday evening, music was playing in a common area near the Courthouse.
Even in the midst of pain, there is good, because there is God.