Business News for the Mississippi Delta

A Story of Recovery   

Rolling Fork Businesses: One year After

By Jack Criss

The tornado that totally altered the town of Rolling Fork on the night of March 24, 2023 brought enough death and destruction on its own. However, the aftershock and aftereffects of the devastation lingered on for all of the residents, and delivered unprecedented challenges to area businesses, many of which were totally wiped out. 

Natalie Perkins, publisher and editor of the town’s weekly newspaper Deer Creek Pilot—and recipient of USA Today’s “Woman of the Year” award—says that local businesses have reopened or are in the process of construction. 

“We’ve always been the type of community that supported our locally-owned businesses and it’s been heartening for me to see that taking place now,” says Perkins. “That said, there are still some businesses in Rolling Fork that, a year later, have still not rebuilt and some that are not planning to come back at all. Our Family Dollar store was completely demolished by the tornado, for example, and resulted in two of our fatalities. They are not intending to rebuild,” she says.

“As far as my newspaper, we had a great advertising surge right after the tornado struck after we asked for support on Facebook,” says Perkins. “So, in the immediate aftermath, we had a nice stream of advertisers from people and businesses wanting to show support and help us. Unfortunately, that has slacked off since, and one of my most recent editions was the first time I had to reduce my page count in almost fifteen years due to reduced advertising.

“My local advertisers are trying to rebuild themselves,” she added, “so I understand their situation completely. They’re doing what they can. My subscriptions have increased since the tornado, and we’ve remained fairly steady in that area of revenue.”

Tracy Harden, of Chuck’s Dairy Bar and Motel, says the renowned establishment—which has been a Rolling Fork establishment for over seventeen years—is still in the process of reopening, but that it will take place any day now. 

“We were completely totaled by the storm, including the motel that was behind the restaurant,” says Harden.”And the rebuilding has been very hard. Everybody here, though, is going through the same thing but it’s been hard getting necessary supplies, keeping people on payroll and all of the other problems any business faces in a rebuilding process.”

Harden says that there would be no possible way that Chuck’s Dairy Bar could rebuild without the assistance of her insurance agent. 

“We use Nolan Andrews, in Leland, and when I tell you he’s come through for us, believe me—he’s been top notch. We’ve been truly blessed with the support we’ve gotten from Nolan and his agency.”

Harden says that very same insurance allowed her to keep paying employees for the year. “We’ve been able to keep anyone employed who wanted to stay,” she says. “Before the tornado, we had twelve employees and now we have eight who have remained. We’re working now out of a little cooking trailer so we’re not a fully functional business until we officially re-open, but we have still kept on eight of our people.”

Chuck’s Dairy Bar was able to re-open on a makeshift basis about a week after the tornado hit. “A gentleman, who I did not know, called me out of the blue and offered me a cook trailer if we wanted to continue working and I accepted. We were able to feed this entire community at no charge for about four weeks after the tornado just through people donating money. After that, we got back on our feet as best we could until we rebuilt. But, it won’t be long now. And we’re excited and nervous at the same time, but ready for the new,” she says.

Harden says she never worried about weather or paid attention to forecasts—but that now she does. “It will always be on our minds now,” she says. “We’ve all talked about getting storm shelters here in town, but I have built a safe room in my own office for our safety and we were also gifted, through a donation, a new walk-in cooler for us to take shelter. 

Screenshot

Brett Virden, general manager of Service Lumber in Rolling Fork for the past ten years, says his business was hit dead center by the tornado and the business was a total loss.

“I live outside of Madison and, the night it hit, we saw the cut-in reports on television,” recalls Virden. “I immediately called one of my employees to ask if she was okay and she said, ‘I’m  not sure—I’m in my bathtub and I think my house is on top of me.’ It shook me up and it was obvious she was in shock. Who knows how her phone was even worked. I left for the store as soon as I could that night with some friends from church, arriving about an hour after the tornado hit.It was surreal and I saw things I’ll never forget.”

Within three days, Virden says the whole community had shown up to help with equipment to try and help Service Lumber functional. “They knew that we would have to provide needed supplies to help rebuild after all of the damage and folks were there to assist, including a lot of my customers,” he says. “Technically, we were only closed on the weekend following the tornado.”

Currently, Virden says that Service Lumber has been operating out of makeshift even while staying open the entire past year to provide the materials people in town needed to conduct their own rebuilding. “We had a lot of help from a lot of people, cleaning up and building our warehouse which we had functional around last Christmas,” he says. “It was a matter of moving as fast as we can in order to help people.”

Virden says that, in one sense, he’s fortunate because his business is the one that has items that everyone needs. “But we’ve given things away, we’ve helped in any way that we can—it’s not as if we’re thriving. It’s just that, as a business, we’ve been able to hold our own because of the nature of our business and the products that we offer. That said, we took a hit even though we’ve remained busy getting what this town needs.”

Virden says a new, brick and mortar reopening for Service Lumber should be taking place shortly, hopefully with a month or two.

The private sector in Rolling Fork definitely seems to be fighting back hard and are busy rebuilding, according to Virden and others contacted for this article. Public buildings and entities are not keeping up at the same pace, it appears. 

Attorney Charles Weissinger, of Wessinger and Hunter who opened his practice in 1977, totally lost his office building during the tornado but is optimistic about the private sector in Rolling Fork. “They’re coming back, slowly but surely,” says Weissinger. 

“My vault here at my office held and it contained all of my important documents. But, most of my file boxes and old records were totally lost. All of my work in progress got blown away—it ended up who knows where. We were, however, able to retrieve most of our data on our computer. And now we have a temporary office, a house whose center was totally blown out but the two wings withstood for the most part. And that’s where we are working now. I patched up the roof and made it my office,” he says. 

“Again, though, the locally-owned businesses are making steady progress, some even got back online within a week,” says Wessinger. “Our grocery store kept going, thankfully, but so many other businesses were just totally lost. The Farm Bureau office is about to move into their new building, though, as are several others including the local veterinary office and animal shelter. We’ll get back—we have the resiliency and the gumption.”

Entergy Mississippi has been involved in Rolling Fork recovery efforts since the very start, within hours of the tornado’s destruction. And they continue to provide help to the community today.

“Entergy rebuilt lines after the storm hit, of course, and since that time we have constantly been working to help rebuild infrastructure when the city was read for that,” says Leyla Goodsell, Manager, Communications for Entergy Mississippi. “For example, when FEMA came in and set up temporary housing neighborhoods, we worked closely with them and local authorities to make sure all of the poles and power lines were ready when families moved back in. We’ve been doing that, not only with FEMA, but also on a regular basis with elected and government officials as well as builders. We’re making sure that power is available when these homes are ready for it.

“We’ve also been working  very closely with Rolling Fork Rising and various other church and missionary groups in the area who are putting up houses in a matter of days in order to ensure that, as those building projects are completed, we’re certain that those homes are ready to take power, as well,” says Goodsell. 

“In addition, we continue to make services available to any customers who need free legal help or assistance in filing their appeals with FEMA.” continues Goodsell. “Entergy has been partnering with SBP, a national disaster recovery agency, and we have more than 150 employees on hand who have been trained in the FEMA appeals process. So, we’re providing that free service to customers in the Rolling Fork area who need that assistance. That continues to be an ongoing effort for us,” she says. 

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn
Pinterest