Mississippi Town Struggles to Rebuild Months After Devastating Tornado

More than three months after a tornado ravaged a small Mississippi town, residents are still just beginning to rebuild their lives and their homes.

On April 27, an EF-5 tornado, the highest rating on a scientific tornado scale, wiped away the majority of Smithville, Miss., killing 17 people and leaving the 1 square-mile town in shambles. The post office, city hall, police station, four churches, 15 businesses, and more than 100 homes were all decimated by the 200 mph winds.

Now the town is beginning to work its way back to what was before.

The Army Corps of Engineers finished clearing 26,000 tons of debris a few weeks ago, and only rows of concrete slabs and empty plots of dirt remain from the homes and businesses that previously lined the streets.

Five community groups have been meeting to develop ideas of what their town’s schools, homes, businesses, streets, and community could be like. Last week, all of Smithville was invited to see all of the groups’ ideas laid out on poster boards and decide what their town will look like by using little green and red stickers.

“This is the opportunity for someone to come in, look at what’s going on, and take a green sticker if they like it and put it on there, and take a red sticker if they don’t like it. We’re going to take all this information back, and compile it, and put it into our master plan,” Smithville’s Mayor Gregg Kennedy explains.

Getting the community to buy into the idea of rebuilding, and becoming invested in it, is the first and most important step of the rebuilding process, according to Kennedy.

While none of the specific plans are finalized, anticipated changes include expanding Main Street from its current two lanes to five; a downtown area with shops and businesses lining the road; a state-of-the-art, high-tech, green-energy K-12 school; and a multi-sport recreational area where the town’s baseball field was destroyed.

Residents Johnny and Teresa Snow say the tornado took off most of the roof and backside of the house they’d built 24 years worth of memories in.

When the storm hit, Teresa said she was on the phone with her daughter, Brandy. Sitting in her bathtub, holding her 10-month old puppy, Sweetie, to her chest, with a pillow and blanket over their heads, Teresa told her daughter the tornado was close – she could feel it. Seconds later, Brandy heard her mother screaming, and then – the phone went dead.

Three weeks ago they were able to come home when they received a FEMA trailer to stay in until their new home is finished. “We hope to get started on a new house about in maybe another month or so. We’re excited about it,” Teresa says. “We’re beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel anyway.”

Rebuilding is already under way throughout the town. A few homes already have frames going up, and foundations are being poured on a daily basis.

All of that is music to the ears of Kennedy, who estimates close to half of the town’s population of 900 won’t be coming back to rebuild.

“The day of the tornado, right before the tornado hit, we’d taken 100 years to get where we was at then, and in 10 seconds it was gone. So now we’re faced with rebuilding our town for the next generation, and the next, next generations, and that’s what we’re doing here,” Kennedy says.

For Johnny, who has called Smithville home for more than 50 years, coming back and rebuilding was never a question. “It’s home,” he says, adding that the people are what make this community so special, and that he and his wife hope more of them decide to return.

“When we start seeing all of these homes…that’s going to be exciting, and I think that’s going to help people that maybe have not made the decision to come back, when they see some of us start building,” Teresa says.

Kennedy says that it will likely be at least 10 years before all the rebuilding will be done, and the mayor emphasizes that  it will happen little by little as funding becomes available, which will come from state and federal agencies, as well as private industry.

But simply deciding to come back and rebuild doesn’t make it an easy thing to do. Every day, when you drive down Main Street, you’re reminded of what took place April 27, Teresa explains.

“It’s been hard looking at the desperation and constantly looking at the damage. And you seldom come back through here without getting, or I still get very emotional at times when I see, when I lose my bearings and I don’t know what street I’m supposed to turn down. I mean it’s hard.”