Miss. storm victims count blessings during cleanup

By Molly Davis/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Storm victims are returning to damaged schools and planning months of cleanup after 10 tornados swept through Mississippi on Friday.

Unlike the regional destruction of Hurricane Katrina, the storms caused spotty but extensive destruction across the state. As a result, unaffected counties have reached out to the counties with the greatest losses, hauling away debris and offering equipment and other resources.

“Red Cross has been here, just every local church bringing food by, feeding workers, feeding victims, counseling, all of it,” Greene County Superintendent of Education Richard Fleming said Tuesday. “And there are so many churches that have come in from out of town. I can’t name them all, but we’re so appreciative and thankful.”

The number of destroyed or seriously damaged totaled 258 in Mississippi. They were as far north as Tallahatchie County, but 245 of those residences were in only three counties: Greene, Kemper and Hinds.

The storms also killed one Greene County resident in a mobile home Friday evening.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials attribute the low mortality rate to storm preparedness.

“I think a lot of it was due to the good warning that people had ahead of time,” said MEMA spokesperson Greg Flynn. “The National Weather Service did an awesome job several days before, saying it was going to be bad, and I think people really took it seriously.”

Gov. Haley Barbour requested help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in assessing the damage and determining whether to ask for a presidential disaster declaration.

Teams of federal, state and local officials were touring Greene County Monday and Hinds and Kemper counties on Tuesday. Flynn said they would be affirming the damage already documented by locals, as well as surveying residents on their insurance coverage or lack of it.

Hinds County saw 34 homes and three businesses destroyed, as well as seven injuries reported. Kemper homes ravaged by the storms totaled 26 in all, with three businesses also destroyed and more than 100 people displaced. Greene reported 23 homes and five businesses destroyed.

Fleming lost his home in the 250-yard-wide path of a tornado when roughly ten large trees fell on it. He and his wife rode out the storm in a closet under the stairwell and were not harmed.

“The only thing that caught me by surprise at all is that this was the very tail end of the system,” he said. “I thought everything had almost moved through and this one got us.”

Greene County’s Vocational Technical School was also significantly damaged. Officials are placing those students at another high school and working to get back to normal before state tests next week.

Dale Box, who teaches welding at the vocational school, said the building sustained significant water damage from limbs falling through the windows and roof. The agricultural program there also felt the impact, with cow fences in need of repair and significant loss to the blueberry, scupadine and muscadine plants that the program uses for fundraising.

Box said that clearing the roads and yards this weekend was a family affair.

He and his two brothers used their tractor to pull debris away from houses for 12-14 hours each day, while the rest of the family — including his wife, children and in-laws — worked with their hands. He said the need was so great that they couldn’t get to everyone in the community.

“I sort of felt guilty about that, but you can’t help everybody,” Box said. “But you just do what you can.”

Box said there’s an area of town as much as a square mile in the Greene County seat of Leakesville that may need to be demolished.

“I don’t think there’s going to be no rebuilding to a lot of the houses and homes,” he said.

Since Friday, the American Red Cross of Mississippi has served almost 5,000 meals and snacks, opened four shelters and distributed more than 200 clean-up kits and comfort kits with hygiene items. Caseworkers are meeting with families this week to address specific disaster-caused needs.

This weekend’s storms make the fifth tornado in a year, according to the American Red Cross’ statement.

“The accumulative effect of repeated disasters in a year’s time causes significant fatigue for the people of Mississippi, our volunteers, partners and donors,” said Cheryl Hamill, program services director for the Mississippi chapter.

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