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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In a tornado’s wake, a Mississippi town wrestles with grief and gratitude

Lisa Robinson stands on the debris that was once her home, after a tornado hit Wren, Miss., on March 26, 2023. President Joe Biden declared an emergency after a storm system that ripped across Mississippi and Alabama.

By Rick Rojas, Eduardo Medina, Emily Cochrane and Anushka Patil

Lequita Barfield raced through the darkness on Friday toward Rolling Fork, pushed by fear after hearing reports of a powerful tornado obliterating the Mississippi town where her mother lived. Barfield found her under a mattress in the wreckage of what had been her home. She did not survive.

Lorlie Smith rode out the storm herself and then hurried to her mother-in-law’s house, which was buried under the limbs of a large tree that had crashed onto it. She banged on the door and there was no answer. But it turned out her mother-in-law, Mae Smith, had been rescued. On Sunday, Lorlie Smith sobbed as she wrapped her in a tight embrace, after reuniting in a shelter.

“We’re just blessed to be alive,” she said, her hands still shaking.

After facing the worst of a storm system that carved a 170-mile path of destruction through Mississippi and Alabama, killing at least 26 people, Rolling Fork was contending Sunday with a confluence of despair and gratitude.

Many, including Lorlie Smith, said they were wrestling with the competing emotions, as even those who were thankful that they had been spared were also plunged into anguish over a staggering loss of life. Thirteen people died in Sharkey County, of which Rolling Fork is the seat.

On Sunday, largely by word-of-mouth, residents were beginning to learn the names of those who had been killed, and in a town as small and remote as Rolling Fork, virtually no one was left untouched by grief.

“We grew up around each other all our lives,” said Annie Lee Reed, who is 69 and has lived in Rolling Fork all of her life, listing the names of people she knew: classmates, neighbors, people she recognized from the grocery store.

Mae Smith piped up with another name.

“She got killed?” Reed said, taken aback. “Really?

“She was my daughter’s bus driver, my granddaughter’s bus driver,” Smith said. “She was a nice lady. She died.”

“Lord have mercy,” Reed replied. The cleanup had started in Rolling Fork, with residents and volunteers picking through the rubble to salvage what they could. Officials have even started talking about rebuilding, contemplating the long and arduous road the community must now navigate.

The turbulence reached beyond Rolling Fork as more severe weather pummeled the Southeast on Sunday. Two tornadoes touched down on Sunday in Georgia, scraping through three counties south of Atlanta, damaging dozens of structures, including 20 homes, and causing some injuries, authorities said. There were also threats of possible tornadoes in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

State and federal officials surveyed the destruction in Mississippi on Sunday and promised an influx of support. “Help is on the way,” Gov. Tate Reeves told residents.

“We are here not just today but for the long haul,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a visit to Rolling Fork on Sunday.

As in Rolling Fork, the storm system Friday left other communities along its path to grapple with what had been lost.

In Carroll County, Mississippi, which is nearly 90 miles northeast of Rolling Fork, Helen Munford and her husband, Danny, were killed with their 14-year-old son, Jadarrion, when their home was leveled along with several others on family property there.

“We can’t even process the emotions or the pain because it’s just too much to take in,” said Lashanda Hemphill-Gerriff, Munford’s cousin. She added, “their family was just full of life.”

The Munfords had seven children between them, Hemphill-Gerriff said, and had been together for at least two decades. Helen Munford worked as a teacher and a bus driver at Marshall Elementary School, throwing herself into extracurricular activities and was beloved by students there, while Danny Munford was a welder.

Jadarrion — known as Big Man, because he was bigger than his twin brother — was in eighth grade, where he played football and baseball. Passionate about sports, he was thinking about becoming a welder, like his father, and how he was going to take care of his family when he grew up.

At 14, he was quick to take on babysitting duties for his younger cousins and help with his family.

“He was such a kind kid,” Hemphill-Gerriff said. “He was a very lovable person, always willing to help, way mature past his age.”

Riley Herndon, just a month from turning 2, was among the youngest of the victims. Her family has lived near the unincorporated community of Wren, Mississippi, for generations — the road they lived on is named for them.

Riley and her father, Ethan Herndon, 33, were killed after the storm wiped out the family’s mobile home Friday. “I have no words to explain what I just saw,” said Ethan’s uncle, Teryl Herndon.

Riley was born prematurely and had several health problems. She was set to have surgery in the coming week. Still, she was “a really happy baby” who touched a lot of hearts, Rachel Atkins, Riley’s aunt, said. Riley’s siblings, who are 7 and 4, were seriously injured and asked about their sister.

“They’re asking about her now,” Atkins said. “And they’re not going to be able to understand this for a while.”

Herndon worked at an RV shop after serving in the Navy. He would “do anything for anybody,” Atkins said. “He loved his family more than anything, and he loved God more than anything too.” She described a blissful childhood largely spent outdoors, saying she and her brother grew up in a “wide open area, where we could do whatever we wanted to, and stay outside all the time.”

In Rolling Fork, an old National Guard armory had become a hub where residents could come for food, supplies or a place to sleep. Medics were also there treating injuries sustained on Sunday during recovery and cleanup work.

Mae Smith and her husband were taken to the shelter after they had been trapped in their home for hours after the tornado passed. She was elated at Sunday’s reunion with her son and daughter-in-law.

“This is the first time I even got to touch her,” Lorlie Smith, the daughter-in-law, said. She cried as she went on to describe what the family had lost and the various ordeals left in the storm’s aftermath, such as tracking down blood-pressure medication for her husband.

“The trailer’s gone,” Lorlie Smith told her mother-in-law, who teared up. “The van is gone. But we’re alive to tell the tale.”

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