By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
SMITHVILLE – When plans and backup plans fail, Smithville emergency responders learned that knowing who can lend a hand in a time of need is just as important as a response plan.
The tornado that hit Smithville last year seemed intent on dismantling the city’s emergency response efforts, destroying the police station which doubled as the response headquarters, knocking trees on police cars, sending an aluminum boat into the fire station and damaging the radio tower.
Before the storm hit, Smithville Police Chief Darwin Hathcock said he drove to the south end of town where he saw the funnel cloud approaching.
“I looked up and saw it coming,” he recalled. “It was the most perfect shaped funnel cloud I ever saw. It was a thing of beauty but it also was the beast.”
He was thrown from the police station during the storm and would later go to the emergency room once the rescue efforts were under way and help arrived in Smithville.
“We were in a unique position where we had no equipment to work with at all immediately following the storm,” said Hathcock. “We didn’t have so much as a pair of rubber gloves following the storm.”
Hathcock recalled using two-by-fours to pry open car doors in an effort to pull people from their vehicles.
He said in the moments following the storm he tried to radio for help but couldn’t get a response. The last thing Hathcock said he remembers saying over the radio was, “We need help in Smithville bad, because Smithville is gone.”
Though Hathcock couldn’t hear anyone over his radio, they could hear him and had even been monitoring the storm while preparing to respond.
Fire Chief Scott Morgan was working in the Tupelo Fire Department when the storm blew through.
“Once I was certain it was going to get close I made plans to leave work early,” Morgan said.
Morgan pulled into Smithville less than half an hour after the storm hit and realized his department would have trouble responding.
The fire station was standing, but heavily damaged, and the trucks were stuck behind broken garage doors.
By the time Morgan arrived at the fire station, help was on its way.
“I didn’t know how much help was coming because I didn’t know what everyone else was dealing with,” Morgan said. “There were people from Alabama, Lee County, departments from Itawamba came and civilians wanted to help so we immediately set up a command post.”
Mobile command centers from the Sheriff’s Department and eventually MEMA served as a staging area for the rescue efforts.
Morgan said the mobile units were a tremendous help because they had nowhere for everyone to meet.
“You couldn’t say, ‘Okay we’ll use the church for this and the school for this – everything was gone,’” he said.
Knowing who was able to help and what resources were available for the relief effort is what Hathcock and Morgan said was the biggest help.
“There will be problems and you have to know if something doesn’t work what else you can do, if everything is gone, who are you going to call,” he said. “If you know the people you have to rely on, things run a lot smoother.”
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, Monroe County Search and Rescue Team, Monroe County Emergency Management Agency, National Guard, surrounding sheriff’s departments, police departments, fire departments and ambulance services were all responded to Smithville.
The Monroe County EMA is now working to retool their local emergency planning committee so every agency in the area can be aware of the risks and resources around them during an emergency.
“The main thing is you have to be as prepared as possible as far as equipment and plans but also the biggest thing within those plans is to know who you look to for help and how you can work with those people,” Morgan said. “When you have people coming from state and federal agencies, people at least need to know, if I’m going to be dealing with MEMA, who are my representatives for the area.”
Since the tornado, the police department has received donated squad cars and used insurance money to purchase a new car and all new equipment. The police department is in a trailer next to the Smithville Community Center where city hall is now located.
The fire department has repaired its building and replaced its equipment as well, lacking only a floating pump to bring them up to where they were when the storm hit.