By Rex Wilgus/Monroe Journal
SMITHVILLE – Smithville Mayor Gregg Kennedy arrived a few minutes late for our interview on a recent Thursday afternoon. He looked markedly tired yet was in good spirits, explaining he’d just come from True Temper, where he works. He did not seem to mind at all having to sit down and give yet another interview.
“They’ve been very good to me,” he said of the management at True Temper. “When I finish my job, I come here. Sometimes I stay till seven. Sometimes it’s midnight.”
Kennedy went back to work full time on Oct. 10, when his leave of absence expired.
After an EF-5 tornado swept through the tiny town of Smithville this past April 27, destroying more than 80 percent of the town, killing 16 people and injuring many others, Kennedy had his hands full. Fourteen of the town’s 15 businesses were destroyed along with 150 homes, all within 30 seconds.
Kennedy, in his third term as the part-time mayor of Smithville, quickly found himself at the center of efforts by Smithville residents to rebuild their town.
“I didn’t go home for about five days after the tornado,” Kennedy said. “That time was critical. We had a lot of things to secure in town. My family came to see me on the second day. Our house had been spared. Some of my hunting buddies took care of my home, kept things going. The first thing we had to deal with was the water tower, which had been damaged. If we hadn’t taken care of that, we would be lucky today just to operate. It was our primary water supply.”
Kennedy, a diabetic, said he was not taking his medications and was so busy he didn’t eat for two weeks. “I lost 25 pounds,” he said. “I became very frail there for a while, but since then I’ve got my health back. The only way I’ve been able to hold up is through my faith in Jesus Christ.”
Kennedy said he has made a lot of friends since the tornado, like Monroe County Roads Administrator Sonny Clay.
“We’d worked together before, but during that time we became like brothers. I could say the same about [Monroe County Sheriff] Andy Hood. We had also worked together before, but we became like brothers. They were here from daylight to dark, taking care of business.
“We built a lot of special friendships during that time — government officials, all the disaster relief people, MEMA. I can’t say enough about Gov. Haley Barbour. He’s been a blessing to us. He declared Smithville a federal disaster. [President Obama] signed on, opening the gates to a lot of help. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers did a lot of cleanup and removal of the debris. The Corp was a real blessing. The 198th [National Guard Unit] in Amory came in and patrolled the streets day and night. So many people have helped us.
“Life is short. One thing I’ve learned is that we become complacent in our comfort zone. I’ve had to learn never to accept the status quo. Always try to do something better.”
Kennedy said his life experiences had helped prepare him for all the sudden demands being put upon him. “I honestly believe I’ve been prepared for this. I’m the oldest of four brothers and one sister. Our parents taught us to work and achieve goals. If you want something, strive to get it. Don’t sit around and wait for it to come to you. Get all the book learning you can get.”
He has had to rely heavily on his faith. “I depend on my faith – I depend on the Lord to lead me and guide me. Before the tornado, I took so much for granted. Like a tree – since April 27, all the trees are gone. I never saw them before, but now they’re gone. I just took them for granted.
“Now I think about everything, like people’s feelings. A lot of people are hurting – the young people, the thunder shakes them up. We had three to four counselors at school after the tornado. We have one all the time now. So many things have happened to so many people here.”
He said Patti Parker, the executive director of the United Way of Greater Monroe County, had been very helpful in assisting people that town officials have not been able to help. “The town can’t get involved in individual assistance,” he said. “Patti Parker and United Way have helped out a lot.”
Reconstruction efforts are costing the town all kinds of money it does not have. Kennedy discussed the many people and institutions coming forward to help. “Three Rivers Planning Development has been helping us. Forty people from different foundations got together to help. State officials, congressional officials, all the major players from the federal government. The Gilmore Foundation allowed us to borrow $150,000 for emergency expenses. It was a no-interest loan. Somebody else let us borrow $100,000 dollars. FEMA reimbursements are just now starting to come back – and we still haven’t settled anything with insurance.”
Rather than offering quick fixes, Kennedy and town officials are looking carefully at ways to make the future of Smithville bright, with plans on tap for a start of the art school campus and a redesign of the town’s layout.
“I’ve learn to be patient,” Kennedy said. “And I’ve stressed that the public has to be patient too. We have a lot of project managers on board, but there’s a process. We have to do what the state government wants, what the federal government wants. It takes time. There are so many agencies involved – FEMA, MEMA, the Department of Homeland Security. On top of that, there’s the insurance companies.”
He said the recent openings of Doughbelly’s and Mel’s Diner had been psychologically very healing.
“It’s a blessing to see new buildings come up,” he said. “It’s a blessing that I’m still here. Right after the tornado, I was sitting at a picnic table and the kids came up to me and told me to rebuild our town. I said that’s I’m going to do. We’re going to see it done. It’s not going to happen overnight. Not in two years, or three years, or five years. It’ll be a better place to live. The things we’re doing right now will affect the generations to come. We need to plan. We need to study. We need to look at 20, 30, 40 years down the line.
“This rebuilding is not for my generations. It’s for the kids. We want a town where they can raise their families.”
He noted that while some of the older Smithville residents had decided not to rebuild, there were several young families buying lots. “We’ll be an ideal location for young couples to put their kids in a state of the art school.”
Smithville’s population is about 582 right now, he said.
What sort of help does Smithville need at this point?
“We’re basically in good shape. We’re getting our funding sources aligned – grants and all of that – so that we know what we can afford. We’ve got families that need help for Christmas.
“Actually what we need are people to dig holes – hundreds of trees have been donated. We’ve got 200 in now, with 700 more on the way from the North Mississippi Community College and the Mississippi Forestry Department. Then we’ve got 500 to 600 coming from National Resource Conservation.”
One small step Smithville has taken: they are ready for bids on the little league field.
“It’s a small thing,” Kennedy said, “but it’s make us feel like we’re getting something done. We have to do what we can, and that was an easy thing to get done. We’re hoping by spring to have little league.”
At the moment, Smithville has a bleak, desolate look. Shattered trees and vacant lots are everywhere juxtaposed by newly-built homes and construction sites. It’ll be about three years before the new school opens its doors; right now students are being housed in modular units.
On the table between us, a Current Land Use Map showed Smithville as it was before the tornado swept through. Kennedy noted how some properties had been sold, others had been bought, and what plans were being made to rebuild such things as churches.
“We have a chance to make a difference,” Kennedy said. “Looking beyond now to the future is crucial.”
Kennedy said a comprehensive plan for Smithville’s future was being finalized though they were still looking at issues like zoning.
“Next summer will be crazy,” he said with a smile, hinting that, after all the meetings and planning sessions and chasing after all the financing and grants, Smithville will start the next chapter in its history.
If Kennedy has his way, it promises to be worth the wait.