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Pandemic’s precautions complicate Mississippi’s Double Trouble

Last week I promised to share the second part in a column series about quarantines, but I didn’t know a record-breaking tornado was going to plow through Mississippi. Neither did Lydia Brooks.

Just before deadly twin twisters surprised Seminary, she made sure to snap an Easter afternoon photograph of her front yard. Dappled sun shone through the leaves of hundred-year-old live oaks, and a passel of kids smiled from an octagonal swing set built for 10. A pair of discarded cowboy boots, caked with mud, sat tossed aside in the grass.

Moments later Brooks and her family members huddled in a hallway of their home as violent winds cracked the slab, swiping the 12-foot tall Mahogany front door from its hinges and slinging glass shards across their backs. Outside, her prized live oaks landed on the family’s Ford Expedition, and the tin remains of six chicken houses — along with a smattering of odds-defying pullets — blew from their neighbor’s pasture into theirs.

The Brooks family was among thousands of Southerners hit by the dual punch of Sunday’s storm surge and continuing fallout from COVID-19. On March 28, Lydia’s husband, Darrel, lost his oil field job. Now the 46-year-old is awaiting an insurance adjustor’s decision to find out if he’s lost his home as well. Until then, the threat of looters keeps them living in what’s left of it. 

Still, over the hum of a generator Lydia told me they’re thankful: “Nobody was hurt. Material things can come and go.”

Indeed, tornadoes killed 14 people in Mississippi. Even so, when I talked to Jennifer McNatt of the National Weather Service, she described the storm event as typical of springtime severe weather patterns, although she acknowledged assessing it has been different: “Some of our on-the-ground survey teams have been limited to one member because of social distancing requirements.” 

Three of those survey teams arrived in Mississippi Monday, verifying that an EF4 tornado with peak intensity of some 170 miles per hour tracked through the state for an estimated 68 miles. At least two miles wide, the tornado set a state record, and recovery from it may be notable as well. Pandemic precautions are affecting all fronts. 

The Red Cross is on the scene, but instead of opening shelters, workers are handing out hotel keys. Organization spokesperson Annette Rowland told me that as COVID-19 mandates came down the pike last month, leaders at the national level determined to prepare for the South’s spring disaster season by making agreements with hotel and feeding partners. In Mississippi, at least 32 families have sought refuge in one of those hotels, and volunteers are distributing meals to 114 participants three times a day.

Collins Fire Chief John Pope spent time Tuesday night making a 120-mile haul for hand sanitizer. Supporters donated two 55-gallon drums of the disinfectant, and Pope planned to bottle it for distribution among first responders and victims. “People may have prepared for the virus before, but when the tornado came through, they lost those resources,” he pointed out.

In Lawrence County, Sheriff Ryan Everett helped with limited-attendance funeral plans for Deputy Robert Ainsworth, who died along with his wife when a tornado destroyed their mobile home. “When I first heard about our governor’s order to shelter in place, I thought to myself, ‘Boy, we’d be in a bind if we had to bury an officer,’” the first-term sheriff stated. “I had no idea I’d be figuring it out. This is the last thing we can ever do for him. We won’t get a redo.”

And in an already shell-shocked economy, Mississippi’s farmers took another direct hit – especially in the poultry industry, a $2.9 billion business. Dave Nichols directs a community development group in one of the hard-hit areas: “We have chicken houses with roofs off and some totally gone. One farmer lost 12 houses.” Nichols explained that a single house can maintain up to 15,000 broilers, so the impact of such a loss is large. He stressed that the shortfall will affect more than chicken availability at grocery stores or Zaxby’s. “Poultry farmers are buying feed, they’re buying fuel, they’re employing laborers. That won’t happen with the chicken houses gone. You’ve heard of win-win situations? Well, this storm plus the virus is a lose-lose.”

As volunteers arrive to help with massive cleanup efforts, Christian leaders like Tommy Broom of the Covington-Jefferson Davis Baptist Association pass out masks and stress spacing. He said numbers are down because reliefs teams are often made up of retirees, the vulnerable age group that now has the coronavirus on its radar.

Still, just hours after Sunday’s storm raged through, Broom set out with a few friends and some chainsaws to view the decimation left in its wake. Before long, they were cutting through limbs and debris to get to a woman trapped inside her home. She was on oxygen, and the electrical lines to power her equipment were down.

Broom admits that pandemic conditions make it a hard time to know how to be a good neighbor: “But in times of disaster, you just do what you have to do.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.