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Mississippi mayor comforts town destroyed by tornado: 'Rolling Fork will come back bigger and better'

JACKSON, Miss. — Reeling from the devastation of severe storms and tornadoes, the small Mississippi town of Rolling Fork was uplifted by its mayor as the community began recovery efforts.

Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker is a well-known figure in his community, not only because of his political ties but because he is the town's funeral director.

It's a business he's been around most of his life, he said. He was raised by his grandparents, who ran the business for 45 years.

In that capacity, as well as in his role as mayor, Walker has been able to offer comfort to the people of his city, the hardest hit of the towns from Friday's deadly tornado that claimed at least 25 lives across the state. Another person died in Alabama after it whipped through northeast Mississippi.

"They call me Butch here," Walker said. "The daughter of one of the victims called and told me, 'You're going to have to help me get through this, Butch.'"

'Wiped off the map': South hit by more severe weather after tornadoes leave 26 dead. Live updates.

Photos: Tornadoes rip through Mississippi and Alabama overnight

'Come back bigger and better'

Search and recovery efforts resumed Sunday in Rolling Fork after the tornado displaced hundreds of people in the community of nearly 2,000 residents. Volunteers distributed bottled water and other supplies to the community.

The tornado that tore through Rolling Fork was given a preliminary EF-4 rating by the National Weather Service. With top wind gusts between 166 mph and 200 mph, the tornado battered homes and flattened much of the town's infrastructure.

The devastation in Rolling Fork is seemingly insurmountable, but Walker is confident the city will be restored.

"It will just take time," he said. "The city of Rolling Fork will come back bigger and better than ever before."

The soft-spoken mayor said even though he never thought he would see the day his town would be destroyed, he was ready to spring into action.

About 80% to 85% of the homes in Rolling Fork had severe damage or were destroyed in the tornado. Residents are staying with family and friends for now, until temporary housing options can be made available.

"We want to make sure displaced families are being taken care of," Walker said. "That is being done. We are well on our way to bringing Rolling Fork back to the way it once was and make it even better."

Rolling Fork mayor's funeral home to help victims

Funerals for those killed in the tornado have not been scheduled yet, Walker said. Their identities have not been officially released. Walker's funeral home is helping four of Rolling Fork's victims who perished Friday.

Other funerals that were supposed to be held in Rolling Fork this past weekend and in the coming days had to be postponed since there is still no electricity in much of the tornado-affected area. Part of the funeral home has roof damage and the windows were blown out, but the building is structurally sound.

"I don't know how we are going to work it out, but we are going to have to make arrangements to make it happen," Walker said.

Federal funding, aid pours in

President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi early Sunday, making federal funding available to hardest-hit areas.

Mississippi's Carroll, Humphreys, Monroe, and Sharkey counties will receive funding for temporary housing, home repairs, loans covering uninsured property losses and other individual and business programs, the White House said in a statement.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, alongside local, state, and federal officials, also said Sunday that aid will come to the devastated region.

“Sharkey County, Mississippi, is one of the poorest counties in the state of Mississippi, but we’re still resilient,” Walker said. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we certainly thank everybody for their prayers and for anything they will do or can do for this community.”

Eldridge Walker, the mayor of Rolling Fork as well as a local funeral director, speaks alongside Benny Thompson following Friday's deadly tornado in Rolling Fork, Miss., Sunday, March 26, 2023.
Eldridge Walker, the mayor of Rolling Fork as well as a local funeral director, speaks alongside Benny Thompson following Friday's deadly tornado in Rolling Fork, Miss., Sunday, March 26, 2023.

Contributing: Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Rolling Fork mayor comforts his town destroyed by deadly tornado