ROLLING FORK, Miss. — The tornado that struck the Rolling Fork on March 24 was a monster that families living in mobile homes on the plains of the Mississippi Delta needed to flee. At its widest point, the dangerous tornado tearing through one of the country’s poorest communities stretched three-quarters of a mile. At its strongest, its winds were powerful enough to topple mobile homes, launch two-by-fours like javelins, and topple brick walls.
The safest place on the surface to weather such a destructive storm is a tornado safe room, a wind resistant structure made of reinforced concrete. But there is no public tornado shelter in Rolling Fork, or in all of Sharkey County, where about a residential neighborhood they are mobile homes.
That left a lot of people in this county, which is 71% black, without protection while the storm raged. While some hid where they could: in private storm cellars, in the closets and bathrooms of brick houses, in the cold room of Chuck’s Dairy Bar — others had no safe option. Fourteen people died.
“I think a lot of those people would have been alive if they had somewhere to go,” said Carrie Linda Mathews, who lives 8 miles south of Rolling Fork.
Her husband’s church lost a 56-year-old parishioner who was found dead in his mobile home, which had overturned. “That’s the worst place you could be in,” she said of mobile homes during a storm.
Mississippi does not comprehensively keep track of which tornado shelters are open to the public, and its list of the largest safe rooms is not available online. NBC News called emergency management directors and local officials in the 15 counties surrounding Sharkey County. Based on those interviews, only six counties had at least one shelter that officials say was built for the Federal Emergency Management Agency Guidelines.
According to the survey, the closest public tornado shelter to Rolling Fork is in Morgan City, 53 miles away, where concrete vaults next to the small town’s firehouse can house about 20 people. Families in Rolling Fork would have to drive about 71 miles to the town of Merigold to get to the nearest secure room with a capacity of more than 100 people.
This list is not definitive. Some counties also have shelters that are used primarily for first responders, but may sometimes be open to the public. Some of the shelters NBC News found are more than a decade old and may require repairs.
In Sharkey County, residents are mourning the storm’s victims and wondering if a shelter could have saved lives that night. At least eight people who died in the tornado outbreak lived in mobile homes.
“The things that I saw in this storm,” said Bill Newsom, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. “RVs just didn’t stand a chance. They were just deleted.»
Tornado shelters can cost millions of dollars to build, putting them out of reach for the poorest communities in the Mississippi Delta. A local emergency manager in another county said that even with a FEMA grant program covering 75% of the cost, county officials chose not to apply because they didn’t have the budget.
A FEMA spokesperson said the agency has made significant investments in tornado shelters, having spent more than $158.5 million on 98 community safe rooms in 44 of Mississippi’s 82 counties since 2008. The Biden administration also invested more than $2 billion in a FEMA program to help communities better prepare for disasters and climate change, covering 90% of the costs in rural areas considered economically disadvantaged.
But Malary White, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said there are communities in the state that would have a hard time contributing 10% matches for safe rooms.
“This is a conversation that we have had with FEMA,” he said. «Our counties have said they just can’t afford it.»
White added that the agency used to share an online map of safe room locations, but removed the guide after learning the sites weren’t always open. Addresses are now posted online when counties report rooms open due to bad weather.