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Communities across the Deep South are reeling from deadly tornadoes

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Communities across the Deep South are reeling after deadly tornadoes tore through Mississippi and Alabama late Friday night and into Saturday morning. Officials say at least 26 people are dead and dozens more are injured. Hundreds have also been left homeless. And President Biden has issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi, making federal assistance available to help communities there. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Mississippi. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Miles.

PARKS: Good morning. So you got there yesterday afternoon, and you spent time in one particularly hard-hit place - Rolling Fork, Miss. Can you tell us about what you saw there?

ELLIOTT: Well, it was just widespread devastation. You know, entire neighborhoods were flattened. The business district was pretty much wiped out. City Hall had its roof ripped off. The library, the little local library was just laying in a heap of rubble. They even lost their water tower. The tornado toppled it over. There were a lot of mobile homes in this community. They were crushed to pieces. And then there were places where entire wooden homes had just been blown off, and all you could see was left were the floorboards.

Just to give our listeners a lay of the land here, this Rolling Fork is a predominantly Black town. There's about 2,000 people who live here. It's in that flat Mississippi Delta region situated between the Yazoo and the Mississippi rivers. This community has always been vulnerable to spring floods, but this is something that I don't think Rolling Fork has ever seen. It's just surreal. There's things hanging from trees. There are cars on houses. There was one corner where what was left of a few washing machines were sitting in this neat row on a slab, what used to be a laundromat.

PARKS: Wow. And so you also talked to some people there. What did they tell you?

ELLIOTT: You know, one of the people I met was Major Larry. He got my attention because he was standing next to this shiny red cab of a tractor-trailer rig, and the giant truck was tumped (ph) over on its side by the tornado. He was trying to salvage a few things. And he had this harrowing tale that he told me of surviving the tornado as the tornado ripped his house apart.

MAJOR LARRY: Yeah, I was in there. I was in there - I - well, I was in a tornado when I was, like, 10. And I remember the train sound. When I heard the train, I just gave the alert, get up, and I jumped up out of the bed, took off running and jumped in a corner. And as I was standing in the corner, the debris was falling all around me. The roof, you know, all that - that was coming down in the house.

ELLIOTT: You can hear this has been a traumatic experience. And, you know, a small town - everybody knows everybody. So they know families that have lost loved ones. And there's a shared sense of loss here.

PARKS: Right. So how are people coping there?

ELLIOTT: Well, people are starting to dig through what's left, you know, cutting down the trees that are on things, trying to salvage important things from their destroyed property, like, you know, car keys, medicines, cell phones, things that have gotten blown away. Utility workers are out trying to restore the grid. And authorities spent much of Saturday and again today combing through the rubble to make sure no one is trapped. And you can tell that's taken a toll. There was this moment where I spotted a sheriff's deputy in his car at the county courthouse, and I approached him. He was eating his sandwich, and I had my big microphone. And he just had the weariest look on his face like he just couldn't bear to talk about what he'd been doing.

PARKS: I know that, you know, being from Florida, dealing with a lot of hurricanes, sometimes these natural disasters, you can see some community response - kind of people coming together. Have we seen any of that?

ELLIOTT: Oh, absolutely. Every block people set up with pallets of water, tables full of clothes, big grills to share food. In the parking lot of a school, I met Larry Bradford. He is a pastor and a former mayor of a nearby town also hit by a tornado a few months ago. He was working with volunteers from a Jackson church who were cooking hot meals. And he says the road ahead for Rolling Fork is really daunting.

LARRY BRADFORD: Rebuilding is going to be - it's going to be a long process. The local lumber store that supplied all of the materials to build - they got wiped out. Yeah, all of the stores where we would normally get stuff at - your Dollar Generals, your Family Dollars - they're gone. They're gone. So everything - gas stations, gone.

ELLIOTT: Now, adding to the challenge, Rolling Fork is in a very rural, agriculture-dependent region. There's not a lot of industry or high-paying jobs. So local resources will be strained in this recovery.

PARKS: OK, so look ahead for us. What's next for this community in the next days and weeks?

ELLIOTT: Well, the secretary of Homeland Security and the FEMA administrator are here today to sort of talk with local officials about what federal resources can come to bear. For Major Larry, the truck driver I met - he told me he's just taking it a day at a time.

LARRY: Got to praise God I'm still here. And it's going to be a long road. I think we're going to rebuild and what it - do what they got to do. But it's going to be a - it going to take a minute.

ELLIOTT: Based on what I've seen here, it could be years because so much of the town's infrastructure is just wiped out.

PARKS: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Vicksburg, Miss. Thank you so much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
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.