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Editor’s note: This article is part of a joint editorial initiative between the National Association of Community Health Centers and Direct Relief.
ROLLING FORK, MISSISSIPPI — Rev. Travis Gully had just finished dinner and was cleaning up the kitchen when his goddaughter asked him about a noise outside. Gully assumed it was from a passing helicopter on its way to the hospital. The noise grew louder and he could hear one of his godsons call out to him from the living room.
“The trees are walking down the street,” the child said.
Gully’s immediate response was to yell, “Get away from the window!”
On March 24, an EF4 tornado landed in the small, rural community of Rolling Fork, Mississippi. The tornado tore through the Mississippi Delta, crushing everything in its path. Rolling Fork, which is a mile and a half wide, was instantly destroyed as winds of 180 mph whipped from house to house.
“I never want another tree close to my house again,” Gully said.
Gully was physically safe. He was able to move back into his home two weeks after the tornado. However, 13 others in Sharkey County died from the storm. Many more experienced shock and trauma. Amid the destruction and chaos, a community pillar has remained: Delta Health Center.
Since the storm, DHC employees have worked daily to support the physical and mental health needs in Rolling Fork. They’ve made calls to colleagues, like Gully, whose homes were damaged. They’ve driven vans around town to knock on doors and care for residents who were too afraid or unable to travel to the health center. They’ve donated necessities like water bottles, sanitary supplies and baby formula to families in need. Most of all, they’ve been the trusted voice and ear to the community during a tragedy.
“The most graphic one to me was the 90-year-old lady that was just sitting in a pile of rubble and refused to leave because that was all she had,” said CEO John Fairman. “And so, our folks provided some intervention to her until she (agreed to) move.”
Fairman addressed a small crowd of nonprofit supporters in mid-April at DHC’s Rolling Fork location. The structure was totaled by the storm, and a temporary clinic was created on the property. He shared that patient numbers were up from 15 per week to over 80 per week.
Rolling Fork is a predominantly Black city with just over 2,300 residents. Some fear that the storm will force residents to leave the area, and potentially Mississippi altogether. That could hurt the city’s economic conditions. The median household income in the area is $38,558, and 20% of residents live below the poverty line.
DHC received donations of a mobile unit and solar panels for power. Direct Relief supported the organization with a $10,000 grant and disaster kits with medical supplies. The health center has also applied for assistance from Federal Emergency Management Agency.
DHC’s Deputy CEO and Disaster Recovery Coordinator, Neuviska Braughur, said that so far donations have helped survivors who need bandages, antibiotics, tetanus shots, and over-the-counter medication like Benadryl and Tylenol. She rides in the van with a psychologist, family nurse practitioner, doctors, and registered nurses. They created a list of houses visited and returned to some properties to redress bandages day after day.
“The help that we provide to them (is) from our heart,” she said. “It was more than our health care touching them: it’s mentally, emotionally, being there for them to talk to. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Braughur said that discussions on mental health are not common in the Black community—prayer is supposed to be best, and many are unwilling to seek out therapy. Her approach is to listen first and share that more people are willing to listen at the clinic if patients want to talk more.
“When we go out, I always pull them to the side and talk to them about where they’re at,” she said. I ask when did it happen, how do you feel now, and a lot of them say (they) were praying, or hiding, but some can tell me exactly what they did, and from there, we refer them to come to our mobile unit and get some health support.”
As for the mental and emotional health of DHC employees, the deputy CEO said they speak to one another each day. She said she encourages their team to express how they feel and what they need as they continue knocking on doors.
A History of Care
The health center has a long history of providing relief to the community when no one else would. DHC was the first rural federally qualified health center in the nation. Its main campus in Mound Bayou opened in 1965 and accepted Black patients during segregation.
“We’re trusted because we’ve been here through the worst of times, and we’ve remained through the best of times,” said Adoris Turner, DHC’s co-deputy CEO.
Turner lives outside of the area but arrived on the scene the morning after the tornado. He said many were in shock, and utter disbelief at what had happened. There were announcements at his church for missing children, a one-year-old, and a one-month-old, as people talked about fighting to hold on to their loved ones as the wind broke through their homes.
“Some saw loved ones swept into the air,” he said.
The health center granted paid leave to employees like Gully whose homes were damaged by the storm. Nona Cooper, a registration clerk at the health center, was unable to return home in mid-April. The windows to her home were shattered, a fallen tree landed on her house, and other damage made it unsafe for her to live in the residence. She told Direct Relief that her home feels like a cave.
“It was tragic, but just the fact that I’m alive… I get emotional because I think about what could have happened.”
Cooper broke down in tears as she talked about losing her neighbors, her sister and brother-in-law who had to be pulled from the rubble, and seeing the town that she grew up in wiped away within minutes.
The 64-year-old was home alone during the storm. She tried to stay on the phone with her sisters as they watched the news for updates. Then she heard the wind, which Cooper says sounded like a “train approaching with a vengeance.” She grabbed a large furniture cushion and hid in her closet while screaming as the tornado landed in Rolling Fork.
“They were telling us the cities in the path of the tornado,” she said. “Mayersville, they said, it’s about to touch down in Mayersville right now, Rolling Fork, get ready, nine minutes, get ready, and by the time he had said that three times you could hear the wind. Oh my God.”
Gully said he’s heard people talk about the sound of a tornado, but he didn’t understand until he experienced it himself.
“I thought someone was in an 18-wheeler in my backyard and was about to hit my house,” he told Direct Relief.
Gully underestimated the extent of the damage at first. Then he heard his sister was temporarily trapped in her home. One of the two churches he pastors was destroyed, and two of his parishioners died. He drove around town after the storm to determine the damage to his church and realized that it was gone. Gully said he stood in the parking lot, in shock.
Gully, who grew up in the area, said he’s worried that resources won’t be allocated equitably across Rolling Fork to rebuild. He’s not confident that people whose homes and businesses were destroyed will remain in town and that the economy will be affected.
However, Gully continues to work with his colleagues at DHC and volunteers from out-of-town to clean up and help neighbors recover from the tornado.
“I was telling a friend that of all the times that this has happened to other communities, maybe I’ve neglected to support like I should have,” he said. “It reminded me, you never know when your day is coming, so you should always be willing to help someone else.”
Volunteers from nearby schools like Mississippi Valley State University and disaster relief organizations from all over the country are working with residents to rebuild Rolling Fork. Piles of debris lay on the sides of the road, including the remains of a water tower that the wind knocked over.
The national, united support is astonishing to them, given Mississippi’s aggressive political and racial divides.
“It’s been an amazing display of the human spirit and our humanity,” Turner said.
Cooper said that little has changed since Jim Crow laws were active and that people are still separated politically and socially. However, she believes that the storm will bring a “new beginning” to Rolling Fork.
“I’m 64, so you know I grew up during a time when it was the way that it was,” she said. “But I have seen so much togetherness where people have pulled together, and it’s like everybody just feels the need to help and be there for each other.”