The first thing Kori Brown saw when she pulled into New Wren, MS, was one home on top of another. “It’s two houses mushed together,” says Brown.
Those were just a couple of the numerous homes damaged or destroyed by the March 24 EF3 tornado that traveled nearly 37 miles through Monroe County, MS, causing widespread devastation.
Before getting to Monroe County, Brown had been one of seven Team Rubicon volunteers, or Greyshirts, deployed to Rolling Fork, MS, to provide road debris removal. The previous day an EF4 tornado, with max wind speeds of 170 mph, had touched down nearby, then traveled more than 59 miles northeast through Silver City, MS, and into Sharkey County.
While doing recon in the area, it quickly became apparent that while Rolling Fork was garnering much media attention and aid from other nonprofit relief organizations, other outlying communities were at risk of being underserved. So, Brown and Greyshirt colleague Beth Dumont got permission from Team Rubicon’s planning team to move their recon efforts northeast to Monroe County.
“We went to the [Monroe County] emergency operations center meeting on Sunday at eight in the morning and we were literally the only game in town,” says Brown. “It was us and nobody else. I walked into the door of the EOC, and the lady was like, ‘oh my God, you guys are here.’”
There they were. It was an easy decision for the veteran-led disaster relief nonprofit to turn their focus then instead to underserved Monroe County. By Monday, the Greyshirts had established a FOB in Smithville and launched an operation to serve the surrounding area.
While the tornado hit largely rural areas in Monroe County, the damage to homes is no less devastating.
“There’s old timber in this area, so the trees that do come down are ginormous,” explains the operation’s Incident Commander, Carol McCoy. “We’re seeing houses pretty much wiped out; we’re seeing trees down; we’re seeing roofs ripped off.”
By Wednesday, March 28, Team Rubicon had officially launched a tornado response operation in Monroe County. Over the course of the next two weeks, more than 40 Greyshirts will be clearing tornado debris, sifting through rubble to help homeowners locate critical items, running chainsaw operations to help clear out some of the enormous downed trees blocking access to homes, and tarping roofs—where possible.
One of the first locations they’ll be working in is an area outside of New Wren that Brown and team surveyed shortly after they arrived.
“When we got out there Monday, we were the first people, other than EMS, who had gone out there,” says Brown. “They hadn’t been checked on by FEMA. They hadn’t been checked on by literally anybody.”
As they pulled into the neighborhood, the team saw one house that had been picked up by the tornado, thrown across the street, and dropped on another. The entire combined debris pile stood less than half a foot taller than the 5-foot-3 Brown. Walking around, Brown found a pair of sisters—one with a broken arm, one who’d had a nail driven through her leg—playing in front of their own leveled home.
As the Greyshirts to the kids and neighbors, a woman approached them, her voice tight with suspicion, and demanded to know why they were there.
“They were so concerned that anything that we even looked at we were going to charge them money for,” says Brown. “I’m like, absolutely no. You will never, ever in your life, get a bill from us. We just want to help you in any way we can.”
Then, the woman looked at Brown and said: “Nobody cares about us out here because we’re poor and Black.”
Brown was having none of that. “Mama, we care about you. I care about you. I don’t care about your economic status, race, whatever, I care about you, and we’re gonna come help you,” said Brown. “As soon as our team hits the ground, I’m going to bring a team out here, and we’re going to figure out what it is we can do to make any of this better. We can’t fix your house, obviously. But we can help you find what you need.”
Which is what she did. On Thursday, Brown returned with a site survey team to evaluate how Greyshirts might be able to help the woman, even if it’s just sorting the rubble for her purse.
It is, after all, where she had the insurance papers for her home.