Two years into their marriage, Talia and Malissa Williams have worked diligently to lay the groundwork for the rest of their lives together. Both took online college classes that could lead to stable careers. They took tentative steps to adopt a child.
The couple talked about settling permanently in Rolling Fork, the tiny Mississippi Delta hometown that Malissa had followed Talia to a few years earlier. But the medical billing and coding jobs they were studying for weren’t likely to be within an hour’s drive. Their older wooden house—essentially their least-bad choice in a city with a limited supply of rental housing—has given them nothing but trouble.
Then came the tornado.
The house, disappeared. Their possessions—cars, clothes, computers—were swept away in winds that reached 170 miles per hour, as the storm, the deadliest to hit the Mississippi in more than a decade, was torn apart on the night of March 24.
Gone, too, was any incentive for them to stay.
“My heart is in Rolling Fork, it will always be there,” Talia, 42, said as she stood outside the motel room, 45 minutes away, that serves as the couple’s temporary home. “But now this has happened, we have a chance,” she said.
As powerful storms raked across the Southeast that night in March, Rolling Fork was shredded. Sixteen people were killed in the area. Dozens of families were forced into the same position as Talia and Malissa: Their homes were damaged, their lives turned upside down in an instant.
But like Talia and Malissa, many people in the community have been navigating a slow-moving crisis for years that has swept the entire Mississippi Delta through decades of disinvestment and decline.
The devastation of that other disaster is evident in the dilapidated homes and abandoned storefronts in the few areas of Rolling Fork left unscathed by the tornado, as well as in the city’s neglected infrastructure, entrenched poverty, struggling schools and troubling health statistics. The population of about 1,700 has been shrinking steadily 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 marked some of the things that had disappeared from Rolling Fork long before the storm, including decent paying jobs, thriving stores, and any sign of unrest.
The Delta — a pancake-flat expanse wedged between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in the northwestern part of the state — has long been defined by contradiction. It is known for having some of the most fertile soil in the world, sustaining cotton, soybean and corn crops that have been distributed throughout the world for generations. But the prize has rarely been shared in any meaningful way with the African-American families who make up much of the population in the poor, hollowed-out communities that dot the region, like Rolling Fork.
“You still see the traces of racial segregation, of economic segregation,” said Rolando Herts, the director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, in Cleveland, Miss. “We inherit the decisions that were made years. and years and 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 from the South of African-Americans fleeing racist oppression and poverty during the 20th century. The population drain continued as increased mechanization of farming reduced the need for farm laborers and other types of industry fled the region.
Annie Lee Reed, 69, spent most of her life in Rolling Fork, but she was relieved when her children left town. The distance was difficult, but the alternative was worse. If they stayed, she said, “I knew they would do nothing or do nothing.”
There are those who believe that the tornado was not a nudge to flee, but an opportunity for Rolling Fork. In the immediate aftermath, Mayor Eldridge Walker assured the community that the city “will come back bigger and better than ever before.”
His argument was that the storm drew attention, and the prospect of investment, to the city. If not for the tornado, President Biden would never have flown in and pledged the support of his administration. “Good Morning America” would never have broadcast live from Rolling Fork, or solicited donations for the city from viewers.
As prescient as Mrs. Hall Williams was about what was ailing Rolling Fork, she was among those who saw promise in the town. “It’s coming back,” she said confidently.
Her home was severely damaged by the storm, leaving Mrs. Hall Williams and her husband to stay in a motel outside of town. But she outlined plans to open a restaurant serving her favorites: macaroni and cheese, catfish, brisket. She would be an employer, someone helping Rolling Fork survive, giving others motivation and resources to stay.
“I’m not giving up,” Ms. Hall Williams said.
Henry Hood was much less shrewd. Two months after the tornado, attention to the city has already faded. Assurances by elected officials were followed by a formal process for seeking government assistance that was so thick with bureaucratic and other hurdles that even the best intentions were no match.
So far, he and Ms. Reed, his wife, have received $650 in federal aid to repair a damaged car, and $1,200 from a church to repair their house, which was handed down by Ms. Reed’s parents.
“It’s just going to be patched up, bit by bit,” Mr. Hood said of his home. “There’s not going to be any restructuring and all that.”
His prediction: The same would be true for Rolling Fork.
The community was horrified by a grim catalog of destruction: City Hall, the post office, the Police Department, both laundromats, the Family Dollar store, the convenience store that also had a decent hot food menu.
There were also things that, although not essential to a functioning community, held deep value as the landmarks of home. Domonique Smith, who grew up in Rolling Fork, noticed the loss of the pear tree in the yard of a woman known as Miss Louise, which had long been harvested by neighborhood children.
Mrs. Smith’s mother’s house apparently vaporized, its contents scattered throughout the neighborhood. She found a single photo of her father, who died when she was so young that she had no memories of him. A neighbor found a photo of Ms. Smith in her cap and gown from when she was valedictorian of her class at South Delta High School.
Now 35, she lives in Jackson, the state capital, nearly 90 minutes away. But she said she always found comfort in knowing her mother’s house, a safe haven, was there in Rolling Fork.
She returned to Rolling Fork on a recent Sunday because her family, finally, had something to celebrate. Her cousin, Ja’kiya Powell, just graduated from high school, third in her class. The family gathered in another relative’s front yard, bragging about Ja’kiya’s accomplishment with a banner hanging from the front of the house.
Almost a year ago, Ja’kiya’s mother moved to Texas, but Ja’kiya stayed behind, living with relatives. She wanted a normal senior year with her friends, something different from her school experience during the pandemic. The tornado hit the town just before her prom.
She was preparing to follow her mother and cousin from Rolling Fork, starting at the University of Mississippi in the fall.
“It was a little taste of something before the tornado,” Ja’kiya, 18, said of his hometown. “There’s nothing now.”
Shadow Rolling Fork sprouted in the collection of motels on Route 82 in Greenville, about 40 miles away, where the Red Cross still distributes three meals a day and a shuttle bus transports residents back to town to clean up their property or just to. be close to all that remains of the home.
Talia and Malissa Williams mostly stuck to their room on the first floor of the Days Inn, which they share with Pee Wee, an elderly but remarkably witty Chihuahua, and Bailey, a much younger pit bull.
They’re waiting for government help and possible temporary housing — a runway allowing them to save money and plan for a future far from Rolling Fork. Talia continues to work as a home care worker.
“It’s basically God,” Malissa, 43, said. “Wherever his direction takes us, that’s where we go.”
Maybe 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 the quiet moments, a strange thought keeps popping up. It is uncomfortable to pronounce, because of the heartache that surrounds the couple and the total disruption of their own lives. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
“To me, it’s beautiful,” Malissa said. “I don’t know what else to say about it.”
It was the Nissan sedan parked outside their motel room that they called their blessing. There were generous strangers, like the woman Malissa met while shopping at the Goodwill store in Greenville. The woman gave Malissa $60, then pulled it back and said God told her to offer a $100 bill instead.
Malissa even found gratitude for the storm that destroyed her home. It was the push she and her wife needed, sending them to the possibility of something better, somewhere else.