Virginians lend helping hand after Mississippi storms

Debora Timms | 5/4/2023, 6 p.m.
When storms tore through Mississippi and the surrounding states of Texas and Alabama last month, the devastation made national news. ...
McKinley Harris’ friends and family who contributed to the needed supplies for tornado victims of Rolling Fork in Sharkey County, included Lowell Sanders, Gloria Glover, Myrtle Wright, Elizabeth Harris, who is the wife of McKinley Harris, Brenda Johnson, Perleta Sanders and Earnest Johnson. Photo by April Coleman/Richmond Free Press

When storms tore through Mississippi and the surrounding states of Texas and Alabama last month, the devastation made national news. At least 25 people were killed, and hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed.

Thirteen of those who lost their lives were from Sharkey County, Miss. Gov. Tate Reeves described Rolling Fork, a small town in the county, as “ground zero” for the storm which began around 8 p.m. on March 24. The powerful tornado and winds that reached speeds up to 170 miles per hour tore the roof off the city hall and toppled the town’s water tower.

Back in Virginia, Ashland retiree McKinley Harris said in a recent interview that the images from Rolling Fork on the news compelled him to help — especially one 86-year-old man who wept as he was interviewed in the aftermath.

He spoke to his three daughters — Bonnica Cotman, Renada Harris and Kimberlyn Washington — about the newscast.

“When I told them about it and how it made me feel, they said they hadn’t heard about it,” Mr. Harris said. “When they looked up what happened, they immediately agreed with me that we gotta do something.”

The sisters got the local nonprofit they founded involved. Through the Brown Grove Preservation Group’s social media accounts, they sought donations for Roll-ing Fork. Brown Grove Baptist, the fam- ily’s home church, contacted parishioners through an email blast. Daughters Renada and Kimberlyn also received donations from patrons of the salon they own near downtown Richmond — Silk Hair Studios.

“Each day for five days straight my dad had to go pick up the donations that were dropped off at the salon from clients and their churches,” Mrs. Cotman said. “It truly was a Hanover County/RVA joint effort.”

In less than two weeks, Mr. Harris said they had a 28-foot trailer “packed to the max” with donations of water, non- perishable food, clothes, shoes, toys, clean- ing supplies, diapers, books, strollers, car seats and more. Cash donations were used to purchase gift cards and other items.

“We even had some gowns in case some young ladies were going to prom, and some nice dresses they could wear for graduation,” Mrs. Cotman added.

On April 13, a group that included Mr. Harris, his wife, Elizabeth, and their daughters started the thousand-mile drive to Mississippi in an RV towing the trailer and a conversion van. They planned to give the conversion van to someone in need.

“That was donated by my dad — his cherished conversion van,” Mrs. Cotman said.

When they arrived in Rolling Fork, they were shocked by what they saw.

“The whole community was devastated,” Mr. Harris said.

“You could see right into people’s houses,” Mrs. Cotman added. “Trees were down everywhere, there were cars that looked twisted — it was bad.”

The group began distributing items and meeting residents, including Rolling Fork couple Bria Duckings and her partner, Andrew Dennard. The couple met in high school and share three children, ages 3 to 12.

The work-at-home mom said by telephone that the local community is small and close knit.

“Everyone knows everyone. We see each other every day.”

The couple say they feel blessed to have only suffered minor damage when homes down the street had been “totaled.” Two trees fell on the house right next door.

“A lot of families are displaced and living in hotels,” Ms. Duckings said. “We only had about seven stores and restaurants combined. The furniture store is gone, the gas station, two restaurants, the Family Dollar — like, everything’s gone.”

Mr. Dennard, who worked as a part-time forklift operator for Staplcotn, a cotton-marketing cooperative, was laid off.

“They have seven warehouses, but two of them got blown away,” he said. “With me being part-time, I was the first let go after the devastation.”

When the couple met the Harris family, they felt an immediate connection and spent hours talking with them.

“Everyone is a blessing,” Mr. Dennard said. “But their family was our biggest blessing since the storm.”

“Just knowing that people who had never heard of Rolling Fork — for them to come here and show so much love and fit right into the community, that was very much appreciated.”

When the group left for home on Sunday, they shared the same feeling.

“I felt like I was leaving family behind,” Mrs. Cotman said of those they met. They’ve been keeping in contact and are planning to make another trip to the Mississippi town in November.

“It was a blessed trip,” Mr. Harris said. “We traveled over 2,000 miles without any problems. God was with us.”