ROLLING FORK, Mississippi - President Joe Biden saw for himself the flattened homes, broken furniture and upended lives left behind by last week's deadly tornado in Mississippi and pledged Friday that the federal government is not leaving until the area is back on its feet.
In the close-knit community of Rolling Fork, Biden read aloud the names of each of the 13 residents of the small town killed in the storm and toured the wreckage. He acknowledged to residents that the road to recovery will be long and hard, but said he was committed to helping them through it.
'We're not just here for today,' said Biden, standing near an animal shelter and a hardware store reduced to rubble by the powerful storm as he addressed members of the devastated community. 'We're going to get it done for you. We're going to make sure you can stay right here.'
A uniformed U.S. Secret Service police officer talks to a person digging through debris as President Joe Biden approaches the area in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, March 31, 2023.
Biden lost Mississippi by more than 16 percentage points in 2020, but people were grateful that he came - and hopeful they won't be forgotten. Resident Paul Rice said he welcomed the continued attention Friday's visit brought to the town's plight.
'Right now, everybody's here, but I imagine it'll start drying up,' said Rice, who was driving around town to survey the damage and check on friends whose homes had been destroyed. 'We're Americans first and foremost. And that means we all have to work together.'
The president heaped praise on Republican Gov. Tate Reeves and the area's longtime Democratic congressman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, for moving quickly to help Rolling Fork and surrounding communities following last week's storm.
Under a canopy set up blocks from Rolling Fork's obliterated city hall building, church volunteers doled out packages of breakfast sausages and pancakes with syrup Friday morning. Joseph Thomas, a 77-year-old Vietnam veteran and lifelong Rolling Fork resident, arrived to claim his meal wearing a bandana emblazoned with an American flag.
President Joe Biden speaks with those impacted by last week's deadly tornado and severe storm in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, March 31, 2023.
Thomas said he never imagined any president would come to his rural Delta hometown.
'I'm proud that he is coming to this little small town. That means a lot to me,' Thomas said. 'Because we need a lot of help to come through here, federal help, boots on the ground to put all this back together.'
Last week's tornado destroyed roughly 300 homes and businesses in Rolling Fork, and the nearby town of Silver City, leaving mounds of lumber, bricks and twisted metal. Hundreds of additional structures were badly damaged. Overall, the death toll in Mississippi stands at 21, based on those confirmed by coroners. One person died in Alabama, as well.
From Marine One, as they flew from Jackson to the area hardest hit by last week's storm, the president and first lady, Jill Biden, saw the devastation across acres of farmland - destroyed homes, toppled trees and piles of debris.
'This is tough stuff,' Biden said as he was greeted by state, local and federal officials in Rolling Fork. 'The most important thing is we got to let people know the reason for them to have hope, especially those who have lost somebody.'
An American flag is seen on an overturned vehicle in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, March 31, 2023, after a deadly tornado and severe storm moved through the area.
Biden announced that the federal government will cover the total cost of the state's emergency measures for the next 30 days, including overtime for first responders and debris cleanup. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will open disaster recovery centers in storm-ravaged counties to help residents access resources.
The Bidens also met with residents impacted by the storms and first responders and received an operational briefing from federal and state officials.
Last week's severe weather makes life even more difficult in an area struggling economically. Mississippi is one of the poorest states, and the majority-Black Delta has long been one of the poorest parts of the state - a place where many people live paycheck to paycheck, often in jobs connected to agriculture.
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.