ROLLING FORK, Miss. — James Anderson was in bed when he heard the tornado’s roar. Startled, Anderson, 61, rolled onto the floor just as his home’s windows exploded under the pressure of the storm.
It “sounded like someone had a machine gun,” he said.
Through the chaos, he shouted for his sister, Barbie Anderson, to grab her grandchildren — an infant and a 7-year-old — and run. Barbie pulled them into a hallway, shielded their bodies with hers and prayed.
“Lord,” she pleaded, “please take care of us.”
The Andersons’ lives were spared, and their small brick home was left standing. But in a small Delta town of about 2,000 people, hardly anyone escaped the storm without losing someone they knew or loved. As rescue and recovery crews poured into town, James Anderson learned that his fiancée’s adult daughter, April Johnson, was one of at least 26 people killed in the storm. She'd been working at the local Family Dollar when the roof collapsed, Anderson said.
His fiancée will be left to care for Johnson’s five children.
“The grandmother now has to be the mother all over again,” he said.
Early Sunday, President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Mississippi and ordered federal aid to supplement recovery efforts, the White House said in a statement.
With more storms forecast for Sunday afternoon, residents and cleanup crews hurried to clear downed trees, patch broken windows with black garbage bags and cover damaged roofs with blue tarps. A few blocks from the Andersons’ home, mountains of debris — remnants of destroyed lives and businesses — began to line Highway 61, the famous Blues Highway that runs from New Orleans to Minnesota.
Displaced residents rested at a Red Cross shelter set up in a National Guard armory. Mae and Will Smith, both 71, spent the past two nights at the shelter, after a tree crashed onto their home. As the storm bore down, Mae Smith made her granddaughter sleep in a room on the side of the house with fewer trees.
“Glad, I did,” she said. “The bed is full of glass.”
The downed tree trapped Will Smith, who’s disabled, in his room. Volunteers fired up chain saws to cut a path through the home to get him out.
“I miss my house,” he said at the shelter. “I wish none of this had happened.”
Rolling Fork’s mayor, Eldridge Walker, spoke with a reporter and first responders at a John Deere store that has been converted into a staging center for the rescue and cleanup effort. Walker’s eyes brimmed with tears as he talked about the losses.
“Listen, everybody knows each other, regardless of what side you live on,” he said. “I have friends that I’ve lost in this storm.”
Walker said he will grieve with his constituents twice — once as their mayor and again as a co-owner of a local funeral home.
As mayor, Walker said, he’ll do everything in his power to “help them get back on their feet.” As funeral director, he’ll be there to hold their hands as they mourn all that’s been lost.