ROLLING FORK, Miss. (NewsNation) — President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden traveled to Rolling Fork Friday to survey the widespread damage caused by devastating tornadoes that ripped through Mississippi and Alabama, killing 21 people and obliterating buildings in its wake.
The president toured the damage and met with first responders and survivors. The president and first lady also met with families who had lost their homes in the disaster. The Bidens were joined by Gov. Tate Reeves, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, along with local leaders.
In a statement after the tornadoes, Biden pledged that the federal government would “do everything we can to help.”
“We will be there as long as it takes,” he said. “We will work together to deliver the support you need to recover.”
The president announced that the federal government will pay for the state of Mississippi’s emergency measures for the next month. That includes removing debris, operating shelters and even paying overtime to first responders.
“I’ll do everything I’m legally able to do to help this community,” Biden said.
Biden approved a disaster declaration for the state, which frees up federal funds for temporary housing, home repairs and loans to cover uninsured property losses. But there’s concern that inflation and economic troubles may blunt the impact of federal assistance.
As the cleanup continues, there are real concerns about Rolling Fork’s future, with many residents unable to believe they will recover.
Biden announced that there were 300 federal responders on the ground to help the community recover and to identify those in need of assistance. He also announced that FEMA would be opening an emergency center where residents could get information about aid.
Last week’s twister destroyed roughly 300 homes and businesses in Rolling Fork and the nearby town of Silver City, leaving mounds of wreckage full of lumber, bricks and twisted metal. Hundreds of additional structures were severely damaged.
State officials said more than 1,600 homes across seven different counties were damaged by this tornado.
U.S. Census data showed that 35% of Sharkey County, where the city is located, lives in poverty.
Biden announced that the Department of Agriculture was working to ensure those in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would be able to buy prepared meals at gas stations and stores, though those aren’t typically eligible under SNAP benefits.
“This is a resilient town, and I think that we will survive. Will we keep all our population here? That’s a real question,” farmer Paul Hollis said.
Tracy Hardin, whose restaurant was destroyed by the tornado, said, “The sooner we get a structure up, it’s going to make the community feel better about staying. Because people are nervous. You know, there’s nothing left.”
Biden is also expected to announce that FEMA will open disaster recovery centers in four counties impacted by the tornado.
People who live in the area say the faster they can get help, the better.
The first couple’s trip to Rolling Fork comes as a new series of severe storms threatens to rip across the Midwest and the South.
The National Weather Service said 16.8 million people live in the highest-risk zone, and more than 66 million people overall should be on alert Friday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.