Rural communities suffering pre-disaster from disinvestment and systemic racism will need significant investment in the long-term following the devastating tornadoes that hit the Deep South. This was a recurring message from panelists in a webinar hosted by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), Under-resourced and Underserved: Supporting Tornado-devastated Communities in Mississippi and the Deep South

Dr. John T. Cooper, Jr., assistant vice president in the Division of Academic & Strategic Collaborations at Texas A&M University, moderated the discussion. Panelists included Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, senior vice president of community and economic development, Hope Enterprise Corporation; Mavis A. Creagh, executive director of R3SM (Recover, Rebuild, and Restore Southeast Mississippi) and Mississippi VOAD vice chair; and Melanie Powell, executive director, Community Foundation of Washington County.

A Disaster Rooted in Disinvestment and Underlying Vulnerability

West-central Mississippi has endured years of disinvestment in its communities, including the lack of investment in the city of Jackson’s water infrastructure that contributed to its current water crisis. In Sharkey County, one of the counties hardest-hit by the tornadoes, the population is nearly three-quarters Black or African American and in 2020, the poverty rate was 24%. 

Bloodworth Botop said in these communities, “There’s historical disinvestment. I mean, a lot of things that are happening today and a lot of the outcomes of these disasters would be preventable if the investment had been made in these communities. The investment has not been made in these communities, and they are starting from a deficit. So we need to help bridge that gap.” 

In response to a question regarding the barriers to recovery in tornado-affected areas due to systemic racism, Creagh said, “One of the main things is that most of the people, because of the systemic racism and inequitable resources, they’re not on the same playing field as someone else whose home was destroyed. I hope people who are looking from the outside understand that even if they [affected people] are fully funded with a home or some type of replacement or something like that, the communities as a whole need additional resources.” 

All panelists agreed that understanding the context is essential and that people who want to help, including funders, should be in conversation with people in the affected communities and include them in the decision-making processes. Creagh also encouraged funders to treat people with dignity and respect. 

Donors Need to Provide Long-term Support

Powell described the situation on the ground, including immediate needs. Housing is a critical need because while many people are staying with families or in shelters, this is not a long-term solution. Powell also shared that transportation is a need so people can get to work and continue providing for themselves. While these immediate needs are important, most of the discussion focused on sustained investments in recovery and preparedness. 

Bloodworth Botop said Hope Enterprise Corporation immediately received requests for  a housing loan fund “to create an opportunity for down payment assistance so that when homeowners do get back into homes or renters get into homes, they have built-in equity in that property already.” Bloodworth Botop said, “You can’t accomplish anything else if you don’t have a place to live.”

Powell said the Community Foundation of Washington County has begun receiving donations to support its tornado relief but described this as “long-term work.” Philanthropists and other foundations should know that people on the ground will need support for various things, such as strengthening small municipalities and helping people navigate insurance requirements. 

In addition to supporting recovery efforts, panelists said it is vital to prepare rural communities before the next disaster. Creagh said we need to try and learn following disasters “because it used to be the format of disaster recovery [that it] would ramp up and back down because there were no other disasters happening. We know that model is not correct. That’s one of the things I’d like to see and that we’re doing … is in conjunction with long-term recovery is preparedness.” 

To conclude, Cooper asked Powell and Creagh for their local perspective on what they believe success looks like for recovery in tornado-affected areas. For Powell, this would mean families returning to homes with access to what they need, like grocery stores and a stable education system. Creagh said success would be a community that is sustainable and has the resources it needs after the houses are rebuilt. Following a disaster, there is often a “window of opportunity,” so Creagh asked, “with all the resources and people you know, what can you bring to the table?”  

Watch the full webinar at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.