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Belzoni braces for World Catfish Festival with open hearts following deadly tornadoes

Photo by Melissa Townsend

Driving into Belzoni, a big red heart placed inside a green triangle hovers above the iconic metal road sign that welcomes visitors to “The Heart of the Delta.”

“Bel-zon-ah,” however, is most notably known as the “Catfish Capital of the World” and for the illustrious annual World Catfish Festival (WCF).

On Friday night, when a massive EF-4 tornado hit Silver City, just five miles south of that nostalgic sign, the balancing of planning the WCF, scheduled just one week away, quickly turned into pivoting to help storm victims.

“Most all of our Catfish Festival Committee members have been on the ground in Silver City and Rolling Fork since the storm hit,” WCF President Emily Donovan said. “From first responders around 10 p.m. on Friday night in Silver City to many relief efforts in Rolling Fork, it’s been a whirlwind.”

Donovan’s husband’s business, Belzoni Cable, which also services Rolling Fork, rushed first to nearby Silver City where he found people trapped under rubble in their apartment. He and his team then dashed to Rolling Fork, where they would spend most of the weekend salvaging items at City Hall and the police station as well as setting up Wi-Fi stations for the massive influx of first responders.

The neighboring counties are deeply intertwined.

WCF Committee member Sarah Rodgers, an employee at Sharkey-Issaquena Community Hospital, has been sidetracked all week from festival planning in Belzoni to working tirelessly on relief efforts in Rolling Fork instead.

“They all pretty much lost everything,” Rodgers said. “It’s overwhelming.”

Back in Belzoni, emotions have also been running high. Some teary-eyed committee members cooked and delivered hot meals via Can-Ams around Silver City, while others commenced spraying neon orange paint lines up and down Hayden, Jackson, Castleman, and Church Streets.

The commitment to the well-being of both communities took precedence.

With thousands expected to gather around the Courthouse Square on April 1, how to execute fundraising efforts at the festival to support the Heart of the Delta Foundation, a 5013c based in Belzoni, became an immediate priority.

There will now be numerous stations around the festival linking to the foundation, which will earmark tax-deductible funds directly to disaster victims in both towns.

The premiere World Catfish Festival began in 1976 as a bicentennial celebration with Governor Cliff Finch issuing a proclamation declaring Belzoni the “Catfish Capital of the World.”

Some of the most successful years of the WCF were under the leadership of longtime Mayor Tom Turner when the attendance numbers soared above 20,000 on a nearly annual basis.

After a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the festival had its comeback year in 2022 with an estimated 9,000 festivalgoers in attendance.

Compare those attendance numbers to the overall population of Belzoni: 1,938 souls, according to the most recent census.

“The economic impact of a festival with five times the population is huge,” Donavan continued. “Not just for Humphreys County but the Mississippi Delta region. Hotels from Yazoo City to Indianola were sold out last year.”

For another perspective on the size of the festival compared to the town’s population, five different entry gates are needed to control admission, requiring more than 100 volunteers.

Based on a clear and sunny forecast, last year’s impressive attendance, and the region’s desire to come together in light of the catastrophic tornadoes, the town is now bracing for the sheer number of predicted festivalgoers, but with big hearts and wide-open arms.

More than 100 vendors and a dozen food trucks will roll into the Catfish Capital and set up before 7 a.m. this Saturday, April 1 with Mississippi’s very own GRAMMY-winning artist Cedric Burnside set to headline the festival.

Children under 10 are admitted free and the Kids’ Zone is complimentary this year, complete with seven inflatables, Disney characters, and two Birds of Prey demos by The Freedom Ranch Wildlife Center.

“We are especially grateful that we made the decision that the Kids’ Zone would be free now with the recent storms that have devastated so many in our community,” noted Leslie Addison with the WCF Committee. “People from Humphreys County are truly passionate about the Catfish Festival. We hope the festival and the Kids’ Zone will boost the overall morale and provide joy to our little community in light of all the tragedy.”

To learn more about this year’s World Catfish Festival, click here.

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