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As a Mississippi town reels from a devastating tornado, a displaced family finds its way home

By MICHAEL GOLDBERG, Associated Press/Report for America
Published: April 8, 2024, 1:10pm
4 Photos
Ida Cartlidge, second from left, holds her youngest son Nolan while sitting with sons Amarii and Jakavien, right, on Nov. 29, 2023, in the middle of their two-bed motel room that serves as their temporary residence after a deadly tornado destroyed their home in March. The Cartlidge family of five spent nearly a year in the cramped motel room in search of a more permanent home, like many of their displaced neighbors. (AP Photo/Rogelio V.
Ida Cartlidge, second from left, holds her youngest son Nolan while sitting with sons Amarii and Jakavien, right, on Nov. 29, 2023, in the middle of their two-bed motel room that serves as their temporary residence after a deadly tornado destroyed their home in March. The Cartlidge family of five spent nearly a year in the cramped motel room in search of a more permanent home, like many of their displaced neighbors. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Photo Gallery

ROLLING FORK, Miss. (AP) — As a deadly tornado barreled toward their home in the Mississippi Delta, Ida Cartlidge only had time to scoop up her 1-year-old son, Nolan, and hold him close.

Cartlidge huddled with her husband and three sons on the living room floor of their Rolling Fork mobile home, its thin walls all that separated the family from 200 mph (320 kph) winds.

“I was holding my baby so tight. I said ‘Baby, I’m probably hurting you right now, but I just can’t let you go,’” she recalled.

Then the tornado hit, and the home was gone. The twister launched Cartlidge into the air and pulled Nolan from her arms. She remembers seeing him floating above her, as though both were suspended in the air.

She landed with a thud. Miraculously, Nolan fell on her chest. He was the only family member to escape the storm unscathed.

The tornado that destroyed Cartlidge’s home last March killed 14 of Rolling Fork’s roughly 1,700 residents and reduced the town to rubble as it charted a merciless path across one of the country’s poorest regions. For the people there, a complicated story of struggle and resilience has emerged in the year since the storm changed everything and exposed vulnerabilities many survivors had been dealing with long before March 2023.

The Cartlidge family spent the next year in a cramped motel room in search of a more permanent home, like many of their displaced neighbors.

“There’s still a lot of suffering,” Sen. Joseph Thomas, who represents Rolling Fork in the state Legislature, said in a recent interview. “And you’re looking at an area that was already depressed.”

Rolling Fork is in Sharkey County, where the poverty rate hovers around 35% — nearly double Mississippi’s roughly 19% rate and triple the nation’s nearly 12% rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Before the storm, Cartlidge, 33, and her husband, Charles Jones, 59, had forged a quiet life in a long, narrow three-bedroom, two-bath mobile home with their sons: Jakavien, 13, Amarii, 12, and Nolan. She worked in customer service for an appliance company and Jones was a mechanic for a local auto parts shop.

Cartlidge suffered a crushed pelvis and broken shoulder in the tornado. Jakavien punctured a lung and shattered bones in his spine and shoulder blade. Amarri had deep lacerations on his back and ankles. Jones injured his ribs and spine.

The mobile home park where they lived was also home to most of the 14 people who died in the tornado. Large families crowded into one- or two-bedroom units, which helped offset the financial strain endemic to a region where stable jobs are scarce.

Sharkey County lost nearly 400 jobs after the tornado, according to Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker. The tornado laid waste to about 300 structures, including numerous homes and businesses, which meant lost tax revenue for the city, he said. In February 2024, Walker wrote to Thomas pleading for additional state funds.

The city’s infrastructure suffered millions of dollars in damage. Public buildings, streets and the city’s sewer and drainage systems either sustained severe damage or were destroyed. One year after the tornado, buildings throughout town remain boarded up, and the remnants of destroyed properties dot the landscape.

The local high school remains closed because of lingering damage, leaving students to ride buses to nearby towns. Destroyed vehicles still hinder residents’ ability to navigate their daily lives.

“People were displaced from their transportation networks,” said William Keith, who worked on disaster response for the American Red Cross. “A lot of people went to the grocery store with their neighbor next door, or they had a buddy a couple blocks away, and then went to work with them.”

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After everyone was discharged from the hospital, the Cartlidge family moved into a two-bed motel room only minutes down the highway from where their mobile home used to be. The Rolling Fork Motel is a one-story brick building with green doors and a bright yellow sign that looms over Route 61, known as the “Blues Highway.”

Music is integral to Rolling Fork’s history. Blues legend Muddy Waters is a native son. The highway running through town symbolizes the genre’s popular theme of packing up and leaving one’s troubles behind, according to the Mississippi Blues Commission.

Convincing locals to stay is a harder proposition these days.

More than 70% of Rolling Fork residents displaced by the tornado were renters. Housing assistance programs run by nonprofits stepped in after the tornado, but most are geared toward homeowners rather than renters or people who lived with family members, Thomas said.

Queen’terica Jones, 23, lived with her mother, Erica “Nikki” Moore, and three children in a mobile home just down the street from the Cartlidge place. On the evening of the tornado, she found her mother’s lifeless body facedown amid the rubble.

Jones had no legal rights to her mother’s property and didn’t have the documents required by many programs that financed new mobile homes for displaced residents. Objects that had previously seemed ordinary — housing documents, family heirlooms, tax returns — suddenly took on life-altering significance for her.

“It’s a hard period. From losing your mom to having to start all over again,” Jones said. “Jesus, that’s a whole lot.”

Without stable work and housing, Jones has moved between the homes of friends and family members since the storm. It’s a common story in Rolling Fork, where public services and steady work that had always been elusive grew even more scarce in the storm’s aftermath.

“Towns such as Rolling Fork generally have a smaller tax base with fewer economic resources to respond and recover from such disasters,” said Ryan Thomson, a professor of rural sociology at Auburn University. “Federal and state aid oftentimes lag behind local needs.”

Nonprofits, the state and the federal government rallied to help. But if the assistance doesn’t address some of the town’s lingering needs, officials fear an exodus is likely.

“We are striving for a better Rolling Fork,” Walker wrote in his letter to Thomas. “And the chance to keep our people in this town.”

The Red Cross paid for extended stays at the Rolling Fork Motel for displaced residents, and for months, volunteers clad in red vests doled out groceries and supplies to weary residents. They stacked whatever the storm hadn’t carried off in corners and made room for donated packages of Cup Noodles and Capri Sun.

For nearly a full year in that cramped motel room, the Cartlidge family lived with only basic necessities. But they had owned their destroyed mobile home, making them eligible for a new one through a nonprofit called Samaritan’s Purse.

In February, they moved into a renovated trailer near downtown, with a “Home Sweet Home” mat greeting them at the door. They cried in each other’s arms upon seeing the property.

That night, Ida served the children popcorn and soda on a platter and they all watched horror films — none as scary as the nightmare they’d lived through together a year earlier.

Then they went to bed, each in their own room.

Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

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