By MICHAEL GOLDBERG
Associated Press/Report for America
ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — The scent of the Mississippi Delta’s soil took hold of Charlie Weissinger’s psyche at an early age, and he has chased it ever since.
Weissinger, 37, works at a bank to support his farming addiction in Rolling Fork, where his family has grown cotton, corn, soybeans, rice or wheat since 1902.
“It’s something about the lifestyle, of being able to watch something that you’re able to create from start to finish,” he said. ”It’s so strange that you can do everything right, and then Mother Nature can take it away. And so it’s a constant battle of man’s will versus Mother Nature, of trying to see how well you can do in the face of adversity.”
Weissinger’s farm was mostly spared when a deadly tornado tore through Rolling Fork last month as it carved a path of destruction through parts of western and northern Mississippi. But many in the predominantly Black farming community weren’t as fortunate.
The twister killed 13 of Rolling Fork’s roughly 1,700 residents, destroyed about 300 homes and businesses and laid waste to entire blocks, leaving many to wonder whether their small-town bonds and shared heritage will be enough to convince one another to stay and try to rebuild.
Rolling Fork has a proud history, claiming blues legend Muddy Waters as a native son and a role in the invention of the teddy bear, after President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a restrained bear during a 1902 hunting trip.
But the city and surrounding Sharkey County are in one of the country’s poorest regions and were already facing tough economic challenges before the March 24 tornado lashed the community with 200 mph (320 kph) winds, closing down nearly every local business. Volatile agricultural markets and a lack of jobs and new industry have kept Sharkey’s poverty rate at around 35%, nearly double Mississippi’s roughly 19% rate and triple the nation’s nearly 12% rate.
“We want to keep our Blues heritage. We still want to see some Rolling Fork when it’s rebuilt,” local Travis Gully said as he walked down a hard-hit street near the roughly 135-year-old Rolling Fork Methodist Church a few days after the tornado hit. “We are the home of Muddy Waters. We are the home of the teddy bear. We want to see the bottle trees in our yards to remind people of our rich heritage.”
The destruction can seem unquantifiable to weary residents who have been working alongside a network of volunteers every day since the tornado to sort through mounds of rubble. Some homes were lifted off the ground by their foundations. A bear statue commemorating Roosevelt’s visit still stands in the heart of downtown, but the twister left its mark on hundreds of structures, including schools, clinics and the local hospital.
The community has pulled together, but the tornado stacked longstanding challenges on top of newer ones, such as high inflation and rising interest rates. In a rebuilt Rolling Fork, residents want more jobs, better infrastructure and a fighting chance to keep people from fleeing.
“What in the hell are we going to do? That’s all I can think,” Willard Miller, a 73-year-old lifelong resident, said from his driveway as he looked out on his mangled neighborhood. “There’s a lot of young people, they ain’t coming back. And they have no reason to other than this is their hometown and their parents are probably here.”
Jerry Stevens owned the Cloverfield Laundromat in downtown Rolling Fork for 20 years. Its walls were blown away, but its 26 washers and dryers remain planted to the ground. Even if he rebuilds, he isn’t sure if many of his old customers will follow suit.
“I’m scared a lot of the building won’t come because inflation is so high right now,” Stevens said. “Interest rates on loans are really high. I’m thinking when they get their insurance checks, they may just go somewhere else and buy a house that is already standing.”
Rolling Fork has been tested by the elements before. The effects of economic stagnation have been compounded by repeated bouts of heavy rainfall that turn tame backwaters into flooded terrain. In a wet season, water can overtop levees and spill onto fertile soil, swallowing whatever ill-fated crops lie beneath.
In 2019, the worst flooding in the area since 1973 drove some from their homes. But the city now faces a rebuilding effort unlike any it has undertaken.
President Joe Biden, who toured the devastation, approved a disaster declaration for the state, freeing up federal funds for temporary housing, home repairs and loans to cover uninsured property losses. But there is concern about how the aid will be spent.
“The citizens have lost everything,” said Calvin Stewart, a five-term alderman representing the city’s first ward. “With all the funds people are trying to bring into the city, I need to make sure those funds get to the most impacted folks.”
The influx of federal funds comes with Mississippi embroiled in its largest-ever corruption case. A welfare scandal has exposed how millions of dollars intended for the state’s neediest people were instead diverted to the rich and powerful.
Amid a current of distrust, communities that have strong social and civic institutions before disasters strike do a better job of allocating relief funds and retaining residents, said David Peters, a professor of rural sociology at Iowa State University.
“When natural disasters like tornadoes or floods hit, communities take two different trajectories,” Peters said. “Communities where there’s strong social capital are fairly resilient. The problem is, those rural communities are fairly rare. In communities that have an absence of social capital, federal monies are mismanaged. And most often, people leave.”
Tasmin Bee, a teacher, is among those who plan to stay, even though the storm blew the roof off the home she bought in August. With Rolling Fork’s schools closed, she said she has to take her five children out of town to keep them busy.
“There is nothing here for kids. You don’t even have a YMCA,” Bee said. They got a city pool, but it’s small. They had a baseball park. If you want to take the kids to the arcade or something like to have a good time, you’ve got to travel.”
When Charlie Weissinger, the banker-farmer, needs a place to take his two sons, he brings them to the patch of farmland that has had its hooks in him for as long as he can remember.
“My boys can decide to go anywhere in the world they want to,” Weissinger said. “But I get them down here, and they get a smell of the dirt. It will follow them for the rest of their lives.”
Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikergoldberg.