By Danza Johnson, Galen Holley and Chris Kieffer
SMITHVILLE – The Smithville death toll climbed to 14 Thursday, one day after what officials called a “strong” F4 tornado ripped through the Monroe County town of about 900 residents.
Search teams began before 7 a.m. to canvass the storm’s path for victims. They did so in the silence of a deserted town that lost 150 houses and 14 of its 16 businesses.
“We’ve been through it folks,” Mayor Gregg Kennedy said while fighting back tears during an afternoon press conference. “Our town is flat…”
“To see what happened in 10 seconds – it was gone,” said Kennedy, who has lived in Smithville for all of his nearly 50 years. “I looked out, and it was gone.”
The storm roared through the area around 4 p.m. Wednesday, flattening the town and destroying lives and landmarks.
Residents were not allowed to re-enter Smithville until the main thrust of the search wrapped up around 3 p.m.
A handful dodged that restriction by spending Wednesday night inside homes that had some roof and structural damage but rooms that remained intact.
Once residents were allowed to return by mid-afternoon, many drove down state Highway 25 with looks of shock, took photos and greeted each other with hugs. They tried to salvage whatever they could – things like books, photos and clothing not taken by the storm. They had only a few hours before a 6:30 p.m. curfew took effect.
Because rescuers will search more thoroughly today, Smithville residents will not be allowed to re-enter the town until further notice.
The tornado was one of many reported sightings in Mississippi on Tuesday and Wednesday, an unprecedented outbreak that left at least 33 dead across the state. About five Smithville residents are still unaccounted for, said County Administrator Sonny Clay. Three also died in Chickasaw County.
The official pronouncements of fatalities and other information came during an afternoon press conference in Smithville. Officials said:
– The storm was an F4 on the Fujita scale, meaning winds were 207 to 260 mph. That ruling was made by the National Weather Service out of Memphis, said Clay, who noted that it could get upgraded to an F5. It was a half-mile wide, although its length has not yet been determined.
– Four of Smithville’s churches were destroyed: Smithville Baptist Church, Smithville United Methodist Church, Victory Baptist Church and Smithville Free Will Baptist Church.
– Officials will not release the identities of the dead or missing until they are sure that search efforts have been completed.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Haley Barbour, who on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for 39 Mississippi counties, extended the declaration statewide and also is asking for the president to declare a state of emergency for Mississippi as he did earlier for Alabama.
Plus, Barbour said the state will apply for other federal assistance, such as with cleanup, infrastructure repairs and individual assistance, ranging from economic aide to counseling for those affected by the devastation.
Several state and local officials were on the ground, from numerous agencies, including Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks; and several sheriff’s, police and fire departments.
Robert “Bunky” Goza, director of Emergency Management for Monroe County, said more than 200 people from various organizations responded. Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency also will head to Smithville, and representatives from the American Red Cross and Salvation Army were in town.
While the search for survivors continued, those who made it through the storm reflected on what had happened.
There was no roof between Peggy Moreland and the high, clear sky that opened over Smithville on Thursday. Sifting through the splinters of what used to be her daughter’s house, Moreland stopped suddenly, as if remembering something, and began to weep.
She lifted a cookbook and dusted it off. “I have to do something,” she said, as her other daughter, Hollye, helped her look for anything to salvage.
Moreland spoke of five generations of her family who’ve lived in Smithville.
Her two granddaughters, who were in the house when the tornado hit, were in stable condition at North Mississippi Medical Center. Moreland found a picture of the girls buried in the rubble. She wiped mud from around the inside of the frame.
“You look around at all this, and you wonder how your children lived through it,” she said.
There were also numerous stories of neighbors helping each other.
“We have seen such an outpouring, it has been overwhelming,” said resident Byron Coker. “We always hear the negative about people, but we forget about the good a lot of times. They say there is no good in people any more, but they are wrong.”
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., arrived on the scene mid-afternoon.
“I heard that it was bad, but it was worse than I could ever imagine,” said Wicker. “People compare this to Katrina and I’d say that’s an accurate comparison. We will make sure we get a statewide disaster declaration for Mississippi.”
With so much damage, it is unclear what the cost of rebuilding Smithville will be, and Kennedy and Goza said it’s too early to make an assessment. Clay said Smithville’s rebuilding will depend on the condition of the infrastructure, which is unknown.
“The water tower is still standing but we don’t know if the water is drinkable or not,” said Clay. “The sewer system is back up and running on generators. So we’ll just have to see what happens.”
But Kennedy said there is no doubt in his mind that Smithville will rise from the rubble.
“When all the assessments are done, we are going to go back to work,” he said. “We will do everything we can to rebuild our town. We have some good people here and we want them to remain here. Smithville will rebound from this. I don’t know how but we will.”