FEMA’s failure

There’s something oddly missing in the area where tornadoes six months apart in 2019 and 2020 touched down damaging hundreds of homes in Mississippi.

There are no FEMA trailers. You know those ubiquitous small gray trailers that pop up after natural disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency opted not to provide trailers for people whose homes were damaged by the storms, Robby Lawson, the construction manager for Restore Jones County explained to us one day during a break from painting walls at The Glory House in Laurel, Mississippi.

Due to Covid, FEMA opted to have drones flyover homes to determine tornado damage. That means no FEMA inspector ever entered the houses to see the inside damage, like waterlogged walls, thus the cost of those repairs didn’t figure in FEMA’s calculations, he said.

The overall damage to the homes here didn’t meet FEMA’s cost threshold for providing trailers, Robby told us.

So instead, a year after the last big storm, we saw some families living in small camping trailers parked on land still strewn with storm debris.

We volunteer for NOMADS, a Methodist group. The official name is Nomads on a Mission Active in Divine Service. The joke is the acronym really means Nice Old Methodists Avoiding Deep Snow.

NOMADS  travel from project to project in their RVs, spending one to three weeks, repairing homes after disasters or fixing up churches or camps.

Right now our RV is parked in the parking lot of the former Mississippi Baptist Bible Institute in Laurel, Jones County, Mississippi. We’re repairing homes damaged by the tornadoes. 

As always here’s a deeper story here than me and Joe painting a few walls and ceilings.

This is rural Mississippi, the Pine Belt. At one point Midwestern lumber barons discovered the piney woods here. They moved to Laurel, building big houses.

Laurel was the yellow pine lumber capitol of the United States, but that was around a century ago. Now there is a big chicken processing company, a few other manufacturers and little else.

Jones county is home to about 68,000 people. Some 20 percent of them live below the poverty line and the median family income is $34,000. The median household income for the rest of the U.S. is $68,000.

The biggest attractions here are Erin and Ben Napier, the hosts of Home Town. The HGTV show follows Ben and Erin as they rehab historic homes, cute cottages and bungalows in this small Southern town.

A house remodeled for Home Town

The tourists Home Town attracts drive slowly through Laurel’s historic area looking at the houses. The women buy candles or Erin’s signature headbands at her Laurel Mercantile Shop. Men slip over to the Scotsman General Store and Woodshop to pay $53 for an heirloom hammer like the one Ben uses.

The tourists line up to eat at Pearl’s and the Bird Dog Café and then stand at the end of the couple’s driveway to catch a glimpse of Home Town celebrity.

Few of tourists pass by The Glory House, the 104 year-old house that served as a pilot to interest HGTV in Ben and Erin’s show. The Glory house was founded by Hope and Grant Staples.

The house is the headquarters for the Staples’ ministry of serving the community that includes a food bank, a Sunday worship service, children’s camps and community meals that regularly serve 400 neighbors in the park across the street from the house.

When the tornadoes struck, the team at Glory House swung into action. They set up six disaster centers over three counties coordinating with churches to offer meals, clothing, furniture, food and cleaning supplies to those who needed it.

In those first days Glory House served 26,000 meals to disaster victims, volunteers clearing debris and workers repairing the electrical lines. Hope and Grant coordinated with churches and restaurants every night to deliver hot meals to victims scattered among local hotels.

Then Jones County asked the Staples to step out to meet an even greater need. Could they coordinate the long-term rebuilding and repair of damaged homes here?

The couple prayed about it for a week before agreeing to create Restore Jones County. That’s the group Joe and I are working for.

Many homeowners had little or no insurance when the storms hit in 2019 and 2020. FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency haven’t offered homeowners much cash either, Robby explained.

So there’s little money or manpower to rebuild damaged homes.

Restore is meant to fill that gap.

NOMADS and the Mennonite Disaster Service are providing teams of free labor to repair or rebuild homes from the ground up. Restore uses donations to buy materials.

The materials aren’t cheap.

There’s the price hikes you pay whenever there’s a natural disaster. The cost of hiring roofers has skyrocketed, for example.

There’s a shingles shortage. The cost of lumber has tripled. You can’t get a variety of plastic electrical boxes. (We don’t know if that last one is disaster, Covid or Chinese tariff related.)

In the last 10 months Restore has raised $200,000 to pay for materials. That falls far short of what’s needed.

Hope estimates Restore needs $500,000 to build just six houses from the ground up. That doesn’t include the money needed to replace water damaged ceilings and floors, for example, in the homes that are still standing.

So while people from California are buying up cute homes in Laurel with the hope of being on Ben and Erin’s show and tourists pour into the block-square downtown to buy antiques, there are people in Jones County living in camping trailers parked on property strewn with tornado debris.

And there’s not a FEMA trailer in sight.