Rolling Fork tornado survivors are just looking for 'a place to lay our heads'
ROLLING FORK — Five days after a catastrophic tornado ripped through Rolling Fork and other neighboring communities, survivors were still picking up the pieces while banding together to find stable living conditions from what is left.
Lorlie Smith, 46, of Rolling Fork, is lucky to be alive after a massive tornado ripped through her hometown Friday night, and she credits her husband, Christopher Smith, 50, with saving her life.
"We were in our home when the tornado hit," Smith said. "When the storm moved above us, it picked the whole house up, but thank God for my husband running to lay on top of me to cover me from the storm. The storm threw us out of the house (front door) not far from our van and 18-wheeler outside."
Smith said it was a miracle that they survived with no injuries, just a few bruises.
"My husband was able to get me into our 18-wheeler while he struggled to get in himself," Smith said. "He told me that if he didn't make it, tell the kids and his mother that he loved them. I thought those were my husband's last words to me, but the storm suddenly moved from above us. With the help of God, he was able to get in."
The Smiths are one of many families living at the Rolling Fork Motel since Friday's storm. Although the motel and most of the rest of the city did not have electricity earlier this week, the residents and survivors staying there make do one day at a time. Electricity was restored to the motel on Wednesday.
Every remaining worldly possession often fits into one small room in a town in desperate need of storage.
Rolling Fork's Becky Miles, 56, and her husband moved in with her brother-in-law and mother-in-law nearby. Becky said she and her husband were lucky to survive Friday's storm. Their home was damaged. Now all four live in one room in her mother-in-law's home.
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Becky Miles said she is thankful to God for allowing her family to survive the tornado.
"We are staying in my mother-in-law's house, sleeping on couches, the floor and anywhere we can find to lay our heads," Becky Miles said. "Our living conditions are not good, but we have no room to complain. We are still alive and well, but some were less fortunate."
Another family calling the Rolling Fork Motel home since Friday is the Jackson family, 52-year-old Bobbie Jackson and her stepdaughter Cynthia Stamps, 42, of Rolling Fork.
Jackson said her family hadn't received any assistance from any Emergency Management agencies.
"My daughter and I were at the motel visiting some friends of the family when the storm hit," Jackson said. "It hurt me to my core to watch our home get destroyed from afar helplessly, along with others. I will never forget seeing people running, screaming and trying to gather what they could before the tornado hit. We thought the storm was heading towards us for a moment, but it turned last minute. We are grateful to be alive."
The federal disaster declaration was approved faster than any other time U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson can remember.
Drone footage Drone footage of Rolling Fork tornado damage
"I've been here over 30 years and been through a lot of storms; never have I seen it approved this fast before," Thompson said. "That speaks for itself when you get here. There is no sense in hesitating. This is a vulnerable community. The population needs every available resource that we have to try to get them back to where they were before the tornado."
Thompson was in Rolling Fork soon after the tornado hit, visiting residents, listening to their concerns and assuring them he was ready to help.
Thompson said It's been a tragic and unfortunate situation.
By Sunday, Thompson had made his third trip to Rolling Fork in as many days. He was among a contingent of state and national officials who vowed to help Rolling Fork and other areas of the north Mississippi recover from the deadly EF-4 tornado.
"What we have to do now is make sure we fulfill the mission of FEMA, but it's a process," Thomspon said. "If we could look at a crystal ball and snap our fingers, tomorrow would be a new day."
Thompson is working with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to expedite federal aid, which Thompson said should comprise temporary housing brought into Rolling Fork and other cities hit by the tornado.
"Over time, we will get there," Thompson said. "But patience is important, even in the midst of this tragedy. But the president's approval puts us at a resource advantage we didn't have before the declaration. We have significant challenges for housing for the business community and all of that. Right now, people are going to stay with friends and neighbors. That's going to wear out. We have to make sure temporary housing is made available. Vicksburg is 40 miles away. Greenville is almost 50. We have no in-between, so we have to make this work."
FEMA will be setting up an assistance center in Rolling Fork and staff it with people from the community, Thompson said. He is working at the federal level to make sure the city has the resources it needs to recover fully.
"We are talking about some novel ideas — temporary travel trailers for those who own their homes. You can't just build the homes all at once."
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This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Rolling Fork survivors describe their living conditions after MS tornado