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Climate Change in Mississippi: A Growing Concern for All

By Alice Ann Hollingsworth

University of Mississippi Climate Reporting Project

In the aftermath of a catastrophic weather event, a housing crisis often develops. Reporter Celeste Lay explores how some of Rolling Fork’s residents are struggling to find a permanent home more than six months after an EF4 tornado destroyed much of the town.

Jacqeline Brown can still hear the echoes of her granddaughter’s terror on the night of March 24 when a tornado ripped through Rolling Fork, Mississippi.

“My grandbaby, she was screaming and hollering because when the roof came off, it also picked her up and she started screaming, ‘I don’t want to die, oh, Lord,’” Brown said.

Miraculously, everyone in the Brown family survived the event, but their home was destroyed. The Browns, like many others, found themselves struggling to find a place to call home in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

They now live in a trailer that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided. However, the trailers are intended to be a short-term solution until those who were displaced by the tornado can find permanent housing. Brown said that it is not very realistic.

“The trailer was given to us at first, but now what y’all are telling us is that we have to pay for them in the end. How can we pay for a FEMA trailer and build a house, too?” Brown asked.

Even before the EF4 tornado tore the town of Rolling Fork apart, more than a fifth of its population lived below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census data. And while Dr. Mike Brown, Mississippi’s state climatologist, said he can’t say for sure that climate change is causing an increase in tornadic activity in the state, he does say it’s possible. He also pointed out that some communities generally have a harder time recovering from any type of disaster.

“Obviously, poor communities don’t have the infrastructure that other communities have and so when something does happen or goes wrong, or there’s a strain on that system, it does have a disproportionate impact [on] these marginalized communities,” Mike Brown said.

Jacqueline Brown speaks with reporter Celeste Lay on Sept. 22, 2023, and describes her experience the night of March 24 when an EF-4 tornado destroyed her home while she along with family members and neighbors sheltered inside. Photo by HG Biggs.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), racial minorities in Mississippi will feel the impact of climate change more than any other group. If the planet warms by two degrees Celsius, EPA analysis found that Black people in Mississippi would be 40 percent more likely than other groups to live in areas where extreme temperatures will cause more deaths. Additionally, American Indians in Mississippi are 48 percent more likely to live in areas that will be inundated by flooding from sea-level rise, according to the EPA.

But journalist and civil rights attorney Dr. Anne Sulton says the issue is more nuanced.

“I differ because most people will say, ‘Oh, you know, black and brown people, they’re gonna have it harder. Oh, no, no, this is gonna get so bad everybody’s gonna feel it,” said Sulton.

Sulton earned her Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Maryland-College Park and her Juris Doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, Sulton serves as senior international correspondent for the Jackson Advocate newspaper. In 2021, she published a series of weekly articles centered on educating readers about the multifaceted issue of climate change.

Dr. Anne Sulton is a practicing civil rights attorney who is the author of more than 50 articles pertaining to climate change. Photo provided by Dr. Anne Sulton.

Sulton said that regardless of factors such as race, gender, age or socio-economic status, the effects of climate change are a little like playing the lottery.

“We all have the equal opportunity to experience a natural disaster,” Sulton said.

Yet, this doesn’t negate the disproportionate effects seen in communities with limited resources, especially when it comes to recovery.

“The poor always suffer more because a loss [for those with limited resources] is actually a loss. For those with ample resources, a loss is a temporary inconvenience,” Sulton said.

Those with financial means often have the flexibility to relocate, rebuild or access alternative resources. In contrast, underprivileged communities may face prolonged displacement, economic hardships, and emotional trauma.

“But,” Sulton said, “it doesn’t mean [those with the financial means to recover] won’t be impacted by the loss of life, right? Loss of productivity, the loss of safety and security—everybody is at an equal risk.”

In essence, climate change stands as the great equalizer of the 21st century. Rising sea levels, intensifying hurricanes, prolonged droughts, and record-breaking heatwaves are universal threats. Those with the financial means to do so may escape some of the immediate repercussions, but they aren’t immune to the broader, long-term societal effects of an unstable climate.

“People of all ethnic and racial backgrounds end up standing in line together at the free food and temporary housing centers,” said Brown.

School of Journalism and New Media reporter Celeste Lay contributed to this story.

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