Editor’s Note: The Human Impact is an ongoing series about marginalized people in our communities and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 upon them.
WEST POINT • When Torrey Williams started his career in emergency management, he knew he wanted to help people; COVID-19 proved to be his guide to that goal.
Williams, a West Point native, has been the West Point/Clay County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) director since 2018. In his role, he assists the city and county with preparing, mitigation and recovery from manmade and natural disasters. He’s been a responder with the volunteer fire department since high school, started his career as a E-911 dispatcher in Clay County, and worked for Oktibbeha County’s E-911 service and EMA from 2007 to 2018, in addition to being an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for Baptist Memorial Health Care in 2015.
When an EMA director position became available in his hometown in 2018, he put in an application.
“Being able to bring the knowledge from the other careers to (my) hometown and then helping people around here just comes second nature because I like to help people,” Williams said. “If I can help people and do what I can, especially in this capacity, then that’s what I try to do.”
When COVID-19 hit, people looked towards the emergency management office for help. It was challenging because items were flying off the shelves as people rushed to buy personal protective equipment and other supplies.
The EMA office was responsible for coordinating pandemic responses on multiple fronts. On the responders’ side, that included ensuring they had the proper protective equipment. With 911 calls, an emergency usually starts with the initial call. Respondents ask screening questions and relay that information to responders so they know if they need to wear a regular mask versus a N-95 or if they need gowns. When respondents would exhaust supplies, Williams’ office would order more goggles, masks, gowns, disinfectant – whatever was needed.
Part of Williams’ job is finding hard-to-find items. In Clay County, disinfectant was one of the first to run out, with other necessary protective equipment either sparse or hard to obtain. He also worked to procure testing supplies, gowns, surgical masks and gloves the local nursing homes and health care facilities needed. Often, he put in requests with vendors, or requested supplies from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) or National Guard.
Clay County had a pandemic plan. But with COVID-19 being a novel virus, they had to be able to quickly adapt those plans to meet unpredictable needs.
In those early months, that meant planning for unknowns: trying to be sure of where to get resources, what the pandemic would be like down the line, how long it would last, and the cost to human life. That became reality when Williams hosted a press conference for the first COVID-19 death last April. Since then, 54 total deaths in Clay County have been reported as of June 1, according to MSDH.
Williams described West Point as a retirement community. According to 2019 American Survey estimates from the Census Bureau, West Point has a population of 19,640, with 17.9% of total population, or 3,507 people, 65 years old or older.
Knowing there was a vulnerable population, Williams had to anticipate the different community needs, such as helping funeral homes anticipate any fatal outcomes and increased death.
“It was a struggle,” Williams said. “Trying to offer technical assistance to some of those places, if not to all of those places,” he said. “Of course, nobody really knew or knows what’s going on. So trying to anticipate what their needs are to try to fill those gaps on what what was either lacking or what we saw was going to be needed.”
To expediate their response to any spikes in coronavirus cases, Clay County health care facilities formed a coalition to report local numbers that officials could then use when determining mask mandates and other safety measures.
That transformed the response, Williams said: instead of being on standby and preparing for the possibility of deaths, they were able to help prevent some outbreaks. In comparison to other areas, Williams said Clay County fared well. Citizens responded to masking and sanitizing, and businesses made sure to do what they could.
“We did have a lot of deaths. One is too many, of course, but a lot of people, I saw, were masking, washing their hands, using hand sanitizer,” Williams said. “I believe people trying to do the right thing by using those different measures contributed to our low numbers.”
COVID-19 even affected disaster response. Prior to the pandemic, Williams could do a damage assessment at homes; during, he had to shift to performing assessments without the homeowners present and then speak with them by the phone later.
“Trying to do that with a thousand people in a county that may need help or need assistance, it gets rather busy,” he said. “That extends the time on a lot of things that have to happen, and by that happening, everything else behind that slows down.
As the agency he oversees moves from response to recovery, Williams said it’s important to ensure the community continues faring well. His office helped sign people up with testing and support vaccination efforts. On April 29, Access Family Health Services and Northside Christian Church hosted a free COVID-19 vaccination event, which the EMA office supported. The event had a very good turnout, Williams said.
As EMA director, Williams has tried to speak with the vaccine wary about the importance of getting vaccinated, especially for older and vulnerable populations. One of his initial concerns was how to get people – especially older people – to vaccination sites.
While there was a site in neighboring Oktibbeha County, he also wanted to help local people get the vaccine without having to travel outside the county.
“I’m hoping that this thing gets better,” Williams said. “It appears that it’s getting better, but we don’t need to get complacent and let it come back on us, because it’s still out there.”
For emergency managers like Williams, the past year has been a nonstop response.
“I would like to go on vacation,” Williams said with a laugh. “A lot of emergency managers have not been on a true vacation in over a year. A lot of us have not been outside the county in over a year on something (non) business-related.”
Now that vaccinations are available and numbers going down, Williams is hoping other responders and he can take what he calls mental health days to unwind and take care of themselves.
“COVID doesn’t really allow us time to decompress because there’s something else going on,” he said. “If it’s not COVID, it’s a disaster. If it’s not a disaster, it’s something going on in the county, like a fuel spill, or a missing person or something like that, so you really don’t have that time to unwind and get your thoughts together.”
TUPELO • A dearth of people seeking office will extend election season for some small Northeast Mississippi municipalities beyond the June 8 general election.
Four Northeast Mississippi towns will be forced to schedule special elections to fill vacancies in their city boards because too few candidates qualified to run. Jumpertown, Smithville and Thaxton only had three people sign up to run for the five at-large alderman positions. In Hatley, no one qualified to run for the Ward 2 Alderman position.
Most small towns across the region attempt to draw just enough candidates to fill all open positions, which allows them to avoid the expense of having an election. When someone retires or moves, officials usually recruit one person to fill the opening.
Jumpertown, Smithville and Thaxton ran into problems this year when their mayors decided against running for reelection and sitting aldermen decided to qualify for mayor. The last time Jumpertown faced a shortage, Mayor Coy Perrigo was able to avoid the problem.
"I got out and recruited some folks and prevented it," Perrigo said. "It is aggravating for sure. It's an ongoing problem. We don't have a lot of citizens who actually live in town."
In Smithville, two sitting alderman are running to fill the seat of Mayor Earl Wayne Cowley. Two other incumbents decided to retire after serving a combined 28 years on the board, leaving four open slots.
The death of longtime mayor Johnny Coleman and the retirement of two aldermen caused similar problems for Thaxton.
"We'll have to go through the process of scheduling a special election," said Thaxton Town Clerk Sammie Jaggers. "If we just have two people qualify for the two open positions, we won't have to go through the expense of holding an actual election."
Even though Hatley is a town with a population of 482, it is divided into wards. No one qualified for Ward 2.
"We are going to have to redraw the lines because there are just not that many people left in Ward 2," said Mayor George King. "If you talked to every registered voter in Ward 2, I don't know that you would get the 15 signatures required to run as an independent."
Hatley and Jumpertown could take advantage of a little known law passed in 2016 that allows small towns with a population of 500 or fewer residents to switch to a board with just three aldermen. Voters would have to approve the change in a special election.
Woodland in Chickasaw County and Monroe County's Gattman are the only towns in the Daily Journal coverage area to officially reduce their board size using this law.
Perrigo said Jumpertown considered dropping to three several years ago, but never did. The Prentiss County town has experienced attendance problems in the past, and he fears the smaller number would create more problems and make it harder to get a quorum.
"I don't necessarily like that because we sometimes only have three (aldermen) show up," Perrigo said. "We only meet once a month. Making 12 meetings a year is not too much to ask."
Hatley would have to go back to at-large elections in order to switch to a three-man board, but it might be easier than redistricting the Monroe County town.
"Right now, we are going to have to wait for the next census to be released to see which way to go," King said.
If they end up with more than 500 residents, the town will rely on Three Rivers Planning and Development District to redraw new ward lines.
TUPELO • A trio of candidates in Ward 5 are running campaigns that highlight their personal biographies and an authentic desire to better the community.
Buddy Palmer, 80, is an incumbent Republican member of the Tupelo City Council running for a third term. He is a retired grocery store owner.
Democrat Hannah Maharrey, 38, is running against Palmer. She ran against Palmer in 2017 as well for the same office, but lost. She works in social services, managing a homeless outreach agency.
There’s also an independent candidate in the race: Cecil Glenn Nabors, 64. He’s an electrician, with a contracting background as a tradesman.
With no provision for a general election runoff, whichever candidate earns the highest tally of votes will capture the Ward 5 council seat outright.
Ward 5 includes much of the former municipality of East Tupelo as well as areas annexed into the city within the last decade.
The general election is June 8. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Voter identification is required to cast a ballot.
Maharrey and Palmer recently participated in a Daily Journal forum for candidates, where they talked about their campaigns and visions for the city. Nabors did not take part.
Maharrey is a Tupelo native who emphasizes her personal roots in both the city and the east side of town, where she grew up. Maharrey says her experience in public service would be of value to her on the City Council. She served a stint in the Peace Corps, has a graduate degree in public administration and currently leads a program that houses the homeless in 71 of Mississippi’s counties.
“I am not a politician,” Maharrey said at a recent forum. “What you’re going to get from me is a public servant.”
She’s been closely linked with homeless outreach efforts in Tupelo as well, and leads the city’s task force on the issue.
Housing, economic opportunities and education are her major policy priorities.
She called for a focus on “consistent and equitable” internet access across the city, referring to it as a key infrastructure issue.
On law enforcement issues, Maharrey said Tupelo is “setting a standard” with its police advisory board, but wants it to have a greater role in promoting transparency and finding solutions to local law enforcement controversies.
In evaluating a new police chief nominee, Maharrey said, “You have to look at experience.” She also wants a chief who will strengthen community relations while prioritizing de-escalation and anti-bias training.
Nabors has lived much of his life in the Northeast Mississippi region, and served a stint in the U.S. Navy. He has emphasized his working class background as an electrical contractor. He currently works at Sunshine Mills.
In a recent forum hosted by the city of Tupelo, Nabors said clear air, clear water, community safety and quality of life are key issues that he believes unite everyone.
“We’ve got to promote that.”
The first-time political candidate also said that he believe attention to arts, entertainment and dining are key ways to bring in tourists and attract and retain residents.
He also said he’d be fiscally conservative and alert about how public dollars are spent.
“There’s no need to pay a dollar for something that should cost a dime,” Nabors said. "I’ll be watching for that.”
Palmer was long associated with his family business, the former Palmer’s Grocery, located in Ward 5.
He describes his record on the City Council as pragmatic and solutions oriented.
“I am a common sense councilman,” Palmer said. “I don’t think anyone could criticize the last eight years and what we’ve accomplished. What I bring to the council is I am a businessman.”
Drainage is a major infrastructure issue in Ward 5 for Palmer, and he cited a plan that’s already been drawn up as guiding future efforts.
Affordable housing is a “conundrum” Palmer said, even as its an issue he believes is key to future population growth. He thinks public-private partnerships will be needed to tackle the issue.
On law enforcement issues, Palmer said he continues to view the police advisory board “a great idea” while touting the board’s training in police procedures as a key component of the board.
Experience will be key for a police chief, Palmer said, as well as the ability to manage through changing times.
“The next one will have to be very proactive in keeping Tupelo safe,” Palmer said about a police chief.
Taylor Vance contributed to this report.
TUPELO • With the incumbent already out of the running, two newcomers — Janet Gaston and Rasheeda Iyanda — are competing to represent Ward 6.
A Republican, Gaston, 65, already won a contested primary, emerging from a three-candidate field in which she defeated incumbent Mike Bryan.
Her Democratic general election opponent, Iyanda, 33, has maintained a minimal campaign presence and did not accept an invitation to participate in a Daily Journal candidate forum.
Gaston recently retired as a bank executive from BancorpSouth. She has highlighted her professional financial background and commitment to bettering her community.
Infrastructure, quality of life and beautification issues are also major priorities for Gaston. Specific policies she has mentioned include repairing neighborhood roads and improving Thomas Street Park.
She has also discussed the city’s lack of affordable housing, which has remained a key topic for candidates this election cycle.
Gaston recently said that she supports ongoing efforts to continue the construction of new subsidized housing units while exploring ways to support homebuyers looking for market rate housing.
“If we don’t address our housing issues, we will not be able to attract young professionals to our city,” Gaston said. “This demographic group will be our future leaders and will help our city grow and stay relevant.”
In social media posts, Iyanda has identified affordable housing, education and law enforcement relations as major priorities for her campaign.
Earlier this year, Iyanda told the Daily Journal in an interview that she was inspired to run for office by her mother, who was active in the community.
“My mother was so outspoken and ready to do some work here in Tupelo,” Iyanda said. “If I could, I want to try and make a change.”
Iyanda said that she wants to focus her campaign on improving neighborhoods in Ward 6 and improving the quality of living for children in the area.
She said she has four children in the Tupelo Public School District and wants to create programs and help more attractions open in Tupelo that will keep children “focused and motivated” and deter them from getting into trouble.
“If we take care of the kids, in the end, they will take care of us,” Iyanda said.
Ward 6 is in west Tupelo and includes the Charleston Gardens neighborhood, the Westwind neighborhood, The Villages subdivision, the Wildwood neighborhood and the Spring Lake area. It also includes major streets such as Butler Road and Chesterville Road.
No matter which candidate wins the Ward 6 race, she will join women elected from Ward 4 and Ward 7 on the Tupelo City Council. This will be a historic share of elected power for women in the local elected office.
The general election between Gaston and Iyanda is June 8. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Voter identification is required to cast a ballot.