Volunteers are driving in to offer hot meals, necessities to Mississippi tornado survivors

Residents of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, wait outside of Sharkey Issaquena Academy to receive aid in the form of hot meals, canned goods, baby items and more, on March 27, 2023.

Residents of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, wait outside of Sharkey Issaquena Academy to receive aid in the form of hot meals, canned goods, baby items and more, on March 27, 2023. Donations have poured into the community from all over the state for the nearly 2,000 people impacted by a powerful tornado that ripped through the area on Friday, March 24, 2023.

Maya Miller, Gulf States Newsroom

It’s Monday afternoon, and Shanteria Williams is waiting in a line that nearly wraps around the parking lot of Sharkey Issaquena Academy in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. There are people everywhere, working double time to fit more items into already overloaded shopping carts. 

Normally, the gym of the school that Williams is anxiously waiting to enter is filled with children running, playing and practicing sports at this time. But on this day — nearly three days removed from destructive storms and a catastrophic tornado that cut a path across Mississippi into Alabama and killed dozens of people — it has been turned into a makeshift hub for emergency relief. 

Late last Friday night, Williams was leaving work when she got the call; an EF-4 tornado with winds of up to 200 mph damaged her grandmother’s home. Her only son, who is 6 years old, was inside. Though they’re all safe now, she said it’s been hard to process.

“I don’t like to talk about it because you get a little bit emotional,” Williams said. “We’ve never had anything like this, I can say that. So I think everybody is in disbelief about this.” 

Volunteers in the Sharkey Issaquena Academy gym sort and gather items on March 27, 2023, for Rolling Fork, Mississippi, residents.
Volunteers in the Sharkey Issaquena Academy gym sort and gather items on March 27, 2023, for Rolling Fork, Mississippi, residents. The town was one of many communities that was hit by destructive storms and a catastrophic tornado on Friday, March 24, 2023, that left 21 people dead. (Maya Miller/Gulf States Newsroom)

The tornado’s destruction hit everyone in the Rolling Fork community and a few neighboring towns. Residents have been without electricity or clean running water for days, the lone grocery store and community health center have been damaged, and the town lumber yard has been reduced to rubble. All that’s left, Williams said, is a Dollar General, a Bumper’s Drive-In fast food restaurant and Rick’s Express — a gas station.

Ollie Willis, who lives just a couple of miles from Rolling Fork, is volunteering at the relief hub. Though her home wasn’t badly damaged, she’s been without power or water since Friday. She said volunteering keeps her from focusing on her heartbreak. 

“I had to find something to do,” Willis said. “I just had to come up here and help my town.”

She can see that people have been hurt, and not just physically. 

“It’s just devastating,” she said. “I know after this, I know our communities, some of us are gonna need some therapy. The kids and all.”

Though things are grim, the town is not without food. Mercy Chefs has set up a mobile kitchen to cook free, fresh meals — complete with vegetables and even dessert — for those impacted by the tornado over the next week. Molly MacDonald is the lead volunteer coordinator with the Virginia-based nonprofit and said its mission is to get people fed.

“When you open that box and you notice it’s more than just a hotdog or a sandwich or something cold, it’s like nourishing to your soul,” MacDonald said. “It is literally feeding your soul just warmth and comfort.” 

The kitchen has handed out more than 700 meals in one day, but they’re equipped to deliver thousands more. MacDonald said Mercy Chefs has also been delivering meals throughout the region in other impacted communities outside of Rolling Fork. 

Molly MacDonald stands in front of a stack of donated bottled water packages in the Sharkey Issaquena Academy gym in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on March 27, 2023.
Molly MacDonald is a lead volunteer coordinator for Mercy Chefs. She’s been serving displaced people and communities struck by disaster since the COVID-19 pandemic began. She said working for the nonprofit changed the way she viewed the world around her and she’s grateful to be of service. (Maya Miller/Gulf States Newsroom)

Back in line at the gym, Williams waits for diapers and soap. Her son clings to her legs.

“My hope is that we can get everything cleaned up and back together, which I know it’ll never be the same,” Williams said. “Hopefully they can get some stuff back the same.”

But recovery could take a while. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency revised the death toll from the tornado to 21, down from 25, based on deaths confirmed by coroners. Allie Jasper, a MEMA spokesperson, told the Associated Press that the agency does not know of any people still reported missing.

Officials also said more than 1,900 homes were damaged across the state. Three shelters have opened across the region, and three medical clinics are providing care. County health departments have also begun free tetanus vaccinations for anyone injured by debris.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.


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