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Federal officials are promising aid to storm-ravaged communities in Mississippi

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The tough road to recovery is coming into view for communities in northwestern Mississippi.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A tornado outbreak over the weekend killed at least 26 people and has left hundreds of people displaced with no homes to return to. Federal disaster aid is on the way to help both individuals and local governments start to rebuild.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott has been in and around the hard hit town of Rolling Fork. She joins us now. Debbie, let's start with what's happening where you are right now.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, it's been cleanup and emergency relief. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves yesterday said that the search and rescue phase has been winding down because teams did spend much of the weekend digging through rubble to make sure that no one else was trapped. So now it's about just trying to repair basic infrastructure. You know, 75% of Rolling Fork is pretty much flattened. This is a predominantly Black town of about 2,000 people. You know, city hall is damaged. The water tower blew down. Power lines are just everywhere. The generator at the hospital needs repairs.

So as crews start to work on that and they're clearing away some of the debris, volunteers have just descended on the town. They've got food, water supplies, clothing, you know, diapers, anything that people might need if you've lost everything you own, right? Shelters are open. And it sounds like a lot of the displaced people have found, you know, refuge with friends and relatives. But, you know, that's not a long-term solution to what they're facing here.

MARTÍNEZ: No. And that list of destruction you mentioned, Debbie, I mean, where do local officials even begin to think about rebuilding?

ELLIOTT: You know, top of mind, other than just sort of getting the power grid back up - right? - and the water on, is housing. This is a very rural region here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. This is farm country. People don't have a lot of resources, as Michel mentioned. The closest hotels are more than 30 miles away. Here's what Sharkey County Supervisor Leroy Smith says needs to happen.

LEROY SMITH: Right now, what we need is to be able to make sure that our citizens that's been uprooted and don't have a place that they can stay and be able to take showers, a place to lay down at night and food for their families to eat - until we can get this situation under control and get it worked out.

ELLIOTT: You know, things most of us take for granted, right? So the FEMA administrator was here and says long-term housing is a priority for the agency and that they're going to be here to see it through. I also spoke with Congressman Bennie Thompson, who emphasized that, you know, putting people in hotels with vouchers is not a workable solution - something that's often used in disasters. He says if residents had wanted to move away from this small town to a big city, they'd have already left.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it's home.

ELLIOTT: Right.

MARTÍNEZ: So how are the people there that call the place home are - how are they coping with the aftermath?

ELLIOTT: You know, so many people who lost everything that I've been speaking with just say they're thankful to have survived and are taking things day by day. That is even the message that I heard from Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker when I asked him to describe what he's up against.

ELDRIDGE WALKER: I really cannot find words to define it. When I woke up this morning, I said, Lord, just help me make it through another day. That's all I got. I ain't got nothing else. Help me be able to help these families to make it through. That's all I got.

ELLIOTT: This is also personal for Mayor Walker. He is the funeral director, so he's been having to care for grieving families through all this, people he's calling his lifelong friends. So it's a lot.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott speaking with us this morning from Vicksburg, Miss. Debbie, thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

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