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Storms and a pandemic create double trouble for the South

The coronavirus is complicating recovery efforts after deadly Easter storms

Storms and a pandemic create double trouble for the South

Live oaks are uprooted at the Brooks family home in Seminary, Miss. (Lydia Brooks)

Just before deadly twin tornadoes surprised Seminary, Miss., Lydia Brooks made sure to snap an Easter afternoon photograph of her front yard. Dappled sun shone through the leaves of hundred-year-old live oaks, and a passel of kids smiled from an octagonal swing set built for 10. A pair of cowboy boots, caked with mud, sat tossed aside in the grass. 

Moments later Brooks and her family huddled in a hallway of their home as violent winds cracked the slab, swiping the 12-foot tall Mahogany front door from its hinges and slinging glass shards across their backs. Outside, her prized live oaks landed on the family’s Ford Expedition, and the tin remains of six chicken houses—along with a smattering of odds-defying hens—blew from their neighbor’s pasture into theirs.

The Brooks family was among thousands of Southerners hit by the dual punch of Sunday’s storm surge and continuing fallout from COVID-19. On March 28, Lydia’s husband, Darrel, lost his oil field job. Now the 46-year-old is awaiting an insurance adjustor’s decision to learn if he’s lost his home as well. Until then, the threat of looters keeps them living in what’s left of it.  

Still, over the hum of a generator Lydia said they’re thankful: “Nobody was hurt. Material things can come and go.”

The twisters killed 12 people in Mississippi and wreaked havoc in several neighboring states, claiming at least 22 more lives. The National Weather Service (NWS) Wednesday confirmed 56 tornadoes ripped through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. The storms also inflicted other damage: Flooding in Marshall County, Ala., caused roads to wash out. An hour west, lightning struck the steeple of Shoal Creek Baptist Church at Priceville. A state line north, 2 inches of rain lashed Nashville, Tenn., followed by snow flurries Tuesday morning.    

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Tabitha Davidson works in a tornado-damaged home in Collins, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Even so, Jennifer McNatt of the NWS’ Southern Bureau described the storm event as typical of springtime severe weather patterns, although she acknowledged assessing it has been different: “Some of our on-the-ground survey teams have been limited to one member because of social distancing requirements.”  

Three of those survey teams arrived in Mississippi Monday, verifying that an EF4 tornado with peak intensity of about 170 mph tracked through the state for an estimated 68 miles. At least 2 miles wide, the tornado set a state record, and recovery from it may be notable as well. Pandemic precautions are affecting all fronts.  

The Red Cross is responding in Mississippi, but instead of opening shelters, workers are handing out hotel keys. Organization spokesperson Annette Rowland said the group is learning to improvise: “We must ensure the safety of both our workforce and those we serve.” As COVID-19 mandates came down the pike last month, Red Cross leaders at the national level determined to prepare for the South’s spring disaster season by making agreements with hotel and feeding partners. In Mississippi, at least 32 families have sought refuge in one of those hotels, and volunteers are distributing meals to 114 participants three times a day. 

Collins, Miss., Fire Chief John Pope spent time Tuesday night making a 120-mile haul for hand sanitizer. Supporters donated two 55-gallon drums of the disinfectant, and Pope planned to bottle it for distribution among first responders and victims: “People may have prepared for the virus before, but when the tornado came through, they lost those resources.”

In Lawrence County, Miss., Sheriff Ryan Everett helped with limited-attendance funeral plans for Deputy Robert Ainsworth, who died along with his wife when a tornado destroyed their mobile home. “When I first heard about our governor’s order to shelter in place, I thought to myself, ‘Boy, we’d be in a bind if we had to bury an officer,’” the first-term sheriff said. “I had no idea I’d be figuring it out. This is the last thing we can ever do for him. We won’t get a redo.” 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

The tornado that hit Jefferson Davis County, Miss., destroyed or heavily damaged multiple buildings, including these chicken houses. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

And in an already shell-shocked economy, the South’s farmers took another direct hit, especially its poultry farmers. In Mississippi alone, chickens are a $2.9 billion business. Dave Nichols directs a community development group in one of the hard-hit areas: “We have chicken houses with roofs off and some totally gone. One farmer lost 12 houses.” Nichols explained that a single house can maintain up to 15,000 broilers, so the impact of such a loss is large. He stressed that the shortfall will affect more than chicken availability at grocery stores or Zaxby’s: “Poultry farmers are buying feed, they’re buying fuel, they’re employing laborers. That won’t happen with the chicken houses gone. You’ve heard of win-win situations? Well, this storm plus the virus is a lose-lose.”

As volunteers arrive to help with massive cleanup efforts, Christian leaders like Tommy Broom of the Covington-Jefferson Davis Baptist Association pass out masks and stress spacing among volunteers. He said numbers are down because relief teams are often made up of retirees, and “they’re kind of scared to get out right now, since they’re in that most vulnerable age group.” Broom has led teams before, and he’s noticed this time, with the coronavirus on their radar, the volunteers who do turn out seem to be quiet and serious. 

Just hours after Sunday’s storm raged through, he set out with a few friends and some chainsaws to check out the decimation left in its wake. Before long, they were cutting through limbs and debris to get to a woman trapped inside her home. She was on oxygen, and the electrical lines to power her equipment were down. 

Broom admits that pandemic conditions make it a hard time to know how to be a good neighbor: “But in times of disaster, you just do what you have to do.”

Kim Henderson

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior correspondent for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family. Follow her on Twitter @kimhenderson319.