SMITHVILLE – President Barack Obama wasn’t able to visit Smithville after last week’s deadly tornado, but several members of his cabinet got a close look at the devastation on Sunday.
After a similar tour in Alabama, they toured the damage and promised to help the town clean up and rebuild.
At least 15 people from Smithville died; several others are missing.
On the tour were Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Small Business Administrator Karen Mills, Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern and MEMA Director Mike Womack, who met with Gov. Haley Barbour and Smithville Mayor Gregg Kennedy.
“We could get down there and see what it was like on the ground, and that makes the sense of urgency that much more acute,” Napolitano said. “It’s not a quick comeback, or an easy one, but it will be, in my view, a complete one.”
She urged all tornado victims to call FEMA as soon as possible.
“We can’t reach out to help you if we don’t know who you are and how we can reach you,” she said.
Donovan said his goal is to find shelter for those whose homes have been destroyed, but many Smithville residents are already staying with friends or members of their family or church.
“That’s a spectacular example of the way this community has come together,” he said.
Anyone who needs shelter now can find a home via the National Housing Locator System.
“We have almost 500 homes in Mississippi that are vacant and available,” he said.
His department also has loans available to help rebuild.
“We’ll do everything we can to cut through the red tape of using our assistance,” Donovan said.
Those with loans or mortgages through the USDA will find aid in the department, Vilsack said. He’s also looking into claims of major loss of timber and crops, as well as clean-up efforts of nearby rivers and streams.
“I learned very quickly that this town suffered a very big hurt, but obviously has a very big heart,” he said.
Mills urged small business owners to apply for long-term, low interest loans through the SBA to rebuild.
“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities,” she said.
McGovern called the Smithville damage “incredible” and thanked Mississippians who had reached out to help Smithville.
FEMA director Fugate pledged that his department will stay in Smithville until the job is done.
“We’re not here just for the short term. When the national media leaves, we don’t,” Fugate said.
He pointed to the destroyed Piggly Wiggly across the street.
“When the Piggly Wiggly’s not open, it’s real bad, folks,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough recovery, but you’re survivors. That’s why we’re here, because we want to help.”
Getting federal help
– Contact FEMA at 1-800-621-3362, disasterassistance.gov or by smart phone at m.fema.gov.
– Contact the USDA at 1-800-548-0071 or at USDA.gov
Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal