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Resilient Power Proves a “Lifesaver” for Mississippi Health Center After Catastrophic Tornado
After an EF4 tornado swept through Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in March 2023, destroying one of Delta Health Center’s sites, the organization was able to set up a temporary clinic and harness resilient power for nine months until a site with power became available.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a joint editorial initiative between the National Association of Community Health Centers and Direct Relief.
After a March 2023 tornado leveled a health center in Mississippi, the organization was able to run operations via a resilient power microgrid system for the better part of a year and continue serving patients, many of whom had lost everything.
The state’s oldest federally qualified health center was struck by an EF4 tornado that swept through the state last year, killing over 20 people and injuring many more. Delta Health Center’s Rolling Fork location was destroyed by the high winds, and the group swiftly established a temporary clinic to make sure residents could continue receiving care.
Since then, the community has continued to recover from the storm, and Delta Health Center has worked alongside affected residents nonstop. The health center’s staff have gone door-to-door to provide access to care, participated in community partnerships to provide food and daily necessities, and maintained a presence in their original location.
Operating there with power was made possible by the Footprint Project, a nonprofit that provides clean energy to communities after climate-related disasters. Delta Health Center had renewable energy just three days after the storm through the beginning of November 2023. The health center was provided with a Tesla microgrid that supplied four kilowatts of solar power energy with up to 30 storage hours at a time. The Footprint Project also provided a portable solar generator and eight solar backpacks to support home health care.
“It was probably one of the longest microgrid deployments that we’ve done for a disaster,” said Will Heegaard, operations director at Footprint Project, who traveled to Mississippi after the storm to install the system.
Adoris Turner, deputy chief executive officer at DHC, said the solar power allowed the health center to offer services through the worst phases of Rolling Fork’s recovery.
“It was a lifesaver, and I literally mean a medical lifesaver,” said Turner. “The ability to see a patient who may be having an asthmatic crisis or people who are having any type of medical need, it went a long way to have our facility up and running.”
Rolling Fork is a small city with a geographic footprint of less than two miles within Sharkey County in Mississippi’s Delta. Prior to the storm, about 2,100 residents lived in the area, and half of the housing structures were renter-occupied. On March 26, President Biden declared a major disaster in Mississippi, providing a pathway for assistance in Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe, and Sharkey Counties, according to FEMA.
“It’s a really slow process,” said Temika Simmons, DHC’s Chief Public Affairs Officer. “There’s a lot of cameras, there’s a lot of assistance, and then after a few months, there’s just so many people who have left Rolling Fork.”
According to the Federal Emergency Management Association, 442 homes were affected by the tornado, with 130 completely destroyed. Less than half of the residences were insured.
Many residents remain displaced, and some have found comfort in neighbors’ and family member’s homes. Health center staff say they have prioritized making daily necessities and accessible healthcare the highest priorities, given so many residents have yet to return to a sense of normalcy.
“If you lost everything — like you don’t even have a toothbrush, and you are still sleeping in grandma’s living room while driving your kids to a different city for school — what does that look and feel like?” Simmons asked. “You’re alive; you’re still living somewhere, but you’re not at home. So we’re thinking about ‘what do people need to feel like they are at home and get back to their normal routine?’”
Simmons said that households are still without running water, electricity, and internet service. She said that Mississippi is a transient community in that people often drive to other cities for work from where they live, making it more difficult to provide care simply based on location.
Before the solar microgrid arrived, Delta Health Center used two gas generators to operate a temporary clinic and a small tent in the health center’s parking lot. After the initial installation of the microgrid, Heegaard said that the health center staff were able to operate the solar energy source themselves.
“That entire clinic, when we were on site two or three days after the tornado, that thing was not habitable. The whole hangar was a doublewide mobile office…it was cracked, split apart by the force of the wind (of the) tornado. So you definitely couldn’t go inside, the whole facility was unusable,” he said.
The microgrid and the backpacks allowed health center staff to treat Rolling Fork patients in their hometown as well as wherever residents were calling home. The health center has 12 locations across Mississippi and six school-based care sites, according to its website. Rolling Fork residents were allowed to visit any DHC location free of charge during the recovery period.
Heegaard said that the health center used solar energy almost every day, except on severely cloudy days when there wasn’t enough back-up power. Solar energy decreased carbon emissions that contribute to localized air pollution and decreased costs for health centers, which would have purchased several gallons of gas per day to maintain the traditional generators. Heegaard said the solar microgrids are also quieter than gas generators, which supports a better atmosphere to provide medical care.
“It’s not ideal to have a bunch of loud, noisy, smelly generator units running while you’re trying to comfort people,” he said.
The health center is now using a temporary clinic through FEMA that has access to power, so the solar energy system is no longer needed. A new, permanent site will open soon, and staff will continue to offer the same health services to the community, whether they have insurance or not. The staff says that DHC remains committed to the Rolling Fork area, even though it’s unclear how many displaced residents will return to the town.
FEMA has approved $13 million for total individual and household dollars for individual assistance and over $34 million in public assistance. However, Turner says residents still need money for basic necessities. Air mattresses, toothbrushes, fresh produce, and clothing remain top requests in the area.
Direct Relief supported Delta Health Center with medical aid and financial support after the tornado, and also financially supported the Footprint Project’s microgrid installation for the clinic’s continued operations.