ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — As a deadly tornado tore through the lower Mississippi Delta, the Rev. Mary Stewart clung to a door in the hallway of her Rolling Fork home, shielding herself from the branches and chunks of debris that came flying through her shattered windows.
Friday's storm flattened entire town blocks, but the Rolling Fork Methodist Church withstood the high winds. And so the first Sunday after the twister commenced just like any other Sunday — with congregants reaffirming their faith and finding solace together.
“We are a very religious community,” said Laura Allmon, a fourth-generation congregant. “It just means a lot for us to be able to get together and pray and be thankful for what we have.”
At least 25 people were killed and dozens were injured late Friday in Mississippi as the storm ripped through one of the poorest regions in the country, carving out a swath of destruction. Elsewhere, a man was killed in neighboring Alabama after his trailer home flipped over several times.
Their homes rendered unlivable, many Rolling Fork residents flocked Sunday to the network of churches dotting the landscape. It is a close-knit farming community bound by intergenerational ties of family and faith that form the social fabric of this rural Southern town of about 2,000.
Wayne Williams, 55, teaches construction skills at a vocational center. He was working with others Sunday to clean up some relatively minor damage at the building. Across the street, a large metal building that had been a community center was ripped apart by the tornado.
“It’s going to be a long road to recovery, to rebuild and get over all the devastation,” Williams said of his community. “With God in the mix, we will recover.”
For Rolling Fork, a rebuilding process now awaits unlike any the town has faced before. But Friday's tornado wasn't the first time residents have had their lives upended by the elements. In 2019, the worst flooding since 1973 drove some from their homes.
Religion is a central way residents of the Delta cope with an unpredictable climate and entrenched poverty.
“So many people here know patience from farm work,” Stewart said. “With their dependence on the rain for their crops — their livelihood — and having to leave it in God’s hands … it’s a wonderful reaffirmation that God is in control.”
Founded nearly 135 years ago, the Rolling Fork Methodist Church has long been a source of support and resilience in hard times, its members said.
Since the church building was without power Sunday morning, roughly two dozen worshipers gathered on its historic steps and bowed their heads while Stewart delivered a short sermon.
“We’re grateful, Lord, that you brought us through this storm,” she said, standing in sunshine beneath a clear blue sky. “We have a lot to do and a lot of rebuilding, and there are people that we’ve lost in our town. … We pray for their families.”
Elsewhere, President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi early Sunday, making federal funding available to the hardest hit areas.
Based on early data, the tornado received a preliminary EF-4 rating, with top wind gusts between 166 mph and 200 mph (265 kph and 320 kph), according to the National Weather Service office in Jackson. Officials said the twister was on the ground for more than an hour.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency and vowed to help rebuild as he viewed the damage in the region, which boasts wide expanses of cotton, corn and soybean fields and catfish farming ponds. He spoke with Biden, who also held a call with the state’s congressional delegation.
More than a half-dozen shelters were opened in Mississippi to house displaced residents.
Just a few blocks down the road from the Rolling Fork Methodist Church, pastor Britt Williamson spoke from the pulpit at First Baptist Church, addressing rows of weary congregants. During the service, people hugged, shook hands and wiped away tears.
“The Delta is a hard soul for the gospel,” Williamson said. “Through the calamity of what happened, God has brought a plow bigger than any of these farmers could have.”
He said faith gives people something to hold onto during life’s challenges.
“We don’t want to help people just to give them a place to live. We don’t want to feed them for a day,” he said. “We want to give them an eternal home.”
Marlon Nicholas, a congregant of the church, said his family’s attendance at a local high school prom Friday night meant they stayed safe even as their home was destroyed. He said other relatives also lost their homes but escaped without serious injuries.
“Miracles,” he said.