By Chris Kieffer | NEMS Daily Journal
SMITHVILLE – One of the deadliest tornadic outbreaks in United States history that left an ugly scar on Northeast Mississippi was selected by the Daily Journal news staff as the top regional news story of 2011.
Spots in most of the region’s counties were caught in the cross hairs of a system that launched nearly 300 twisters in 24 hours throughout the Southeast.
Ground zero of Northeast Mississippi’s devastation was Smithville, one of three spots in the nation to be struck by an EF5 cell, the highest rating for a tornado.
April 27′s twisters killed more than 350 Americans. Sixteen of those casualties occurred in Smithville, a Monroe County town of 900 people that also lost 150 houses and 14 of its 16 businesses.
“We’ve been through it, folks,” Mayor Gregg Kennedy said during a press conference held the next day. “Our town is flat …
“To see what happened in 10 seconds – it was gone. I looked out, and it was gone.”
Kennedy was huddled under a table at Town Hall when the tornado struck around 3:45 p.m. He crawled out to a scene his heart could hardly handle: His hometown of nearly 50 years had become a flattened, treeless landscape dotted by one debris pile after another. An entire neighborhood was wiped out, as were four churches, the Town Hall, police station and post office.
The twister was the first in the country to be classified as an EF5 since a 2008 storm destroyed Parkersburg, Iowa, and the first in Mississippi since the Candlestick Park tornado hit near Jackson in 1966.
In Smithville, maximum winds of 205 miles an hour left little or no trace of appliances and plumbing fixtures in the most extreme damage path, an assessment found. A 1965 Chevy pickup truck parked in front of one of the destroyed homes could not be found.
“It was awful,” said Reba Duncan, who was about three miles away when the storm hit. “I’ve been in a tornado before, but I’ve never heard one this bad. They say it sounds like a train, but this one sounded like a train was going to run over you.”
Smithville was not the only damaged community in the region. Nearby Wren was hit by two twisters, one in the morning and again with the afternoon cell that hit Smithville. Chickasaw County suffered damage and three deaths. A 17th Monroe County victim died outside of Smithville.
Damage was also reported in Alcorn, Marshall, Prentiss, Tippah, Lee, Lafayette, Pontotoc, Itawamba, Tishomingo and Union counties.
Storm recovery continues, although it will be a long time before visual reminders of the damage disappear. It will likely be even longer before psychological wounds heal and warning sirens don’t conjure up vivid memories.
Among the damage in Smithville was the city’s K-12 school, which was rendered unusable. Its 600 students spent the remainder of the school year on other campuses. They currently are housed in several modular buildings located on a field in town that serves as a temporary school. The former campus is being rebuilt.
Mixed with the tragedy have been countless stories of selfless heroism and generosity. More than 15 volunteer fire departments were immediately on the scene in Smithville, as were EMS and law enforcement personnel from throughout Northeast Mississippi. They rushed to a scene that was difficult to bear.
“People are walking around in shock with broken arms and all sorts of injuries,” nurse practitioner Marsha Houck said hours after the storm passed.
Several state and federal agencies quickly responded, as did such organizations as the American Red Cross, the United Way and The Salvation Army. The town and the region also were flooded with hundreds of thousands of dollars of charitable donations and armies of volunteers ready to help rebuilding efforts.
Although Smithville’s recovery will be slow, it hit an emotional crescendo in late August when the high school football team returned to its home stadium for its first game since the storm.
Smithville has a long history of gridiron success, and fans flocked to the stadium with signs bearing such messages as “Demolished and disrupted but not defeated.”
“We want to send a message that we’re on the rebound,” Kennedy said before the game. “Nothing can lick us. We will come back bigger and better than ever.”
As a new year dawns, Kennedy is still optimistic about the future. “For the next two years,” he said last week, “we will be busy rebuilding.”