In Rolling Fork, a congregation comes together to save a century-old church
Throughout the lower Mississippi Delta, there are miles of seamless farmland punctuated with bright red tractors and rusting silos. Farm animals huddle closely under the shade of pines.
But then, entering Rolling Fork, the tree line breaks. In fact, most of the trees here lean northward after a tornado battered the area late Friday evening. The storm sent pickup trucks hurtling through the air as if they weighed nothing more than the bricks from people’s homes that are now scattered across the town.
The National Weather Service gave the tornado a preliminary EF-4 rating, which is classified as having top wind gusts between 166-200 mph. The storm system it was a part of swept through four counties in Mississippi, killing 25. Another person died in Alabama after being trapped under a mobile home.
Some additional preliminary stats from the Rolling Fork/Silver City tornado -— NWS Jackson MS (@NWSJacksonMS) March 26, 2023
Path length: approximately 59 miles beginning in northern Issaquena Co and ending in northern Holmes Co
Duration: 1 hour, 10 minutes (7:57 PM - 9:08 PM)
Maximum path width: 3/4 mile
‘They just showed up with plywood and some hands’
“As you see in Rolling Fork, there’s hardly a tree left standing,” said Father Greg Proctor, an Episcopal priest who leads the Chapel of the Cross Church. Chapel of the Cross was one year shy of celebrating 100 years in this red brick building, but now, more than half of the church has been obliterated.
“There was a bell tower that went three stories up there with a big cast iron or brass bell in the wreckage,” Proctor said. ”We hope they will save it.”
Just two days after the tornado touched down, nearly a dozen men sort through the wreckage, salvaging silver and panels of stained glass. Some are members of Proctor’s congregation, but some are from out of town — driving in from as far away as Arkansas.
“They just showed up with plywood and some hands,” Proctor said. “The commandment to love God and love your neighbor have been shown these last few days as people have come together to help.”
The congregation is small, but Proctor said many have shown up to help unprompted. They have questions, but they also want to be useful, for which he’s grateful.
William Moore, a lifelong member of Chapel of the Cross, is one of those volunteers. He’s been coming to this church for more than 60 years despite living a few miles south in Cary, Mississippi.
As he looked over the damage, he took a deep breath and struggled to keep talking.
“I'm devastated. It's a small congregation and I've been the treasurer for 40 years. It's my life,” he said. “It was probably the prettiest church in the county, and it's gone.”
For now, Proctor said that they’re coming up with a plan to get Sunday services going again. The goal is to be up and running by next Sunday.
“We may not be in this building anymore. It's hard to say for sure, but we will have a worship space and we will gather to praise God's grace,” he said. “Even in the midst of chaos like this, God continues to be with us and strengthen us.”
‘We lost everything’
Even in the 80-degree heat, people in utility trucks, construction equipment and emergency vehicles moved all over town Sunday — including a group of volunteers who worked through the rubble of Patricia Kenny’s house.
All that remains of her home are a few walls that were once the center of it. Her family survived the tornado by taking cover in a bathroom and a closet when it hit Friday night — both are still, somehow, standing.
Brenda Morris, Kenny's sister, was in the house when the tornado hit and said her family is lucky to be alive, but like many, their belongings are destroyed.
"We lost everything. We are trying to find purses with our ID in it. We lost clothes, we lost important papers. It's just everything is gone,” she said. “We just out here trying to find everything where we can to save something.”
Morris said volunteers like Crama Koury have been helping her family for two days. Koury worked through the wreckage looking for some of those important belongings.
"We're all obsessed with finding this one makeup case. It has birth certificates, social security documents," she said.
Koury was living on the coast during Hurricane Katrina and said these moments bring out the best in humanity.
"People are good when it comes right down to it,” she said. “I don't care if you're Republican or Democrat or how divided you are, on a normal day when something like this happens, people are good.”
Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Lacey Alexander and Gulf States Newsroom’s Maya Miller and Rashah McChesney contributed to this report.
This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.