Story by Alice Ann Hollingsworth
Jacqeline Brown can still hear the echoes of her granddaughter’s terror on the night of March 24, 2023, when a tornado ripped through Rolling Fork, Miss.
“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 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 EF-4 tornado tore Rolling Fork apart, more than a fifth of its population lived below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And while Mike Brown, Mississippi’s state climatologist, cannot say for sure that climate change is causing an increase in tornadic activity in the state, he does say it is 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,” Brown said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, racial minorities in Mississippi will feel the impact of climate change more than any other group. If the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius, EPA analysis found that Black people in Mississippi would be 40% more likely than other groups to live in areas where extreme temperatures will cause more deaths. Additionally, American Indians in Mississippi are 48% 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 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,” Sulton said.
Sulton earned her Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Maryland-College Park and her Juris Doctor 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.
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 does not 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 are not 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,” Brown said.
School of Journalism and New Media reporter Celeste Lay contributed to this story.