By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal
SMITHVILLE – A majority of the town’s population, adorned in “I love Smithville” T-shirts, gathered under a blue sky Saturday to remember the 16 townspeople who died in the EF-5 tornado a year and a day earlier.
Mayor Gregg Kennedy recalled many of the victims by name.
“You could come in on the south end of town and see the beautiful roses in Ms. (Celia Fay) Jackson’s yard,” Kennedy recalled. “My first job as a teenager was driving a green Jon Deer tractor for Mr. Jesse Cox. When I went deer hunting in the hills, I would have a great time fellowshipping with (Roy) Peanut Estis. My wife would talk with Ms. Maxine (Chism) and she gave us years and years of personal advice.
“I miss them. I miss all of them. And I know without a shadow of a doubt they are looking down on us now, smiling ear to ear.”
Along with Kennedy, Congressman Alan Nunnelee, Gov. Phil Bryant and his wife Deborah spoke, each reflecting on the impressive recovery of Smithville.
Bryant presented Kennedy with a check for $13,732.16 to help pay debris removal costs, part of a grant from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
“That afternoon someone came to my office and said, ‘It struck a small community named Smithville,'” Bryant said.
“Then, I was unfamiliar with Smithville, but they told me where you were and what happened. As I came into the community I began to see the devastation, uparalleled to anything I’d seen.”
Bryant talked about the resolve of Smithville citizens and their effort to rebuild following the storms.
“We understand that when we go back to our jobs, your work goes on,” he said. “The real achievements have occurred because of the men and women of Smithville.”
The first lady talked about the positive attitude of the community.
“After visiting with residents I came away with a sense of renewal and hopefulness,” she said. “With your can-do attitude I think y’all have made good progress in only a year.”
Kennedy presented community hero awards to two community members who went above and beyond during the recovery – Smithville High School student Meagan Whitehead and Cross Bound Church pastor Kevin Crook, who served as a volunteer coordinator following the storm.
“I can say (Smithville) is ahead of where I thought it would be at this time,” Crook said. “Literally thousands of people came in and volunteered and if it wasn’t for them it wouldn’t be where it is.”
Nunnelee applauded the community for keeping a positive outlook and moving forward.
“That tornado that came in and took lives and damaged property did not destroy the spirit of Smithville,” Nunnelee said. “We see here signs of growth, we celebrate the businesses that have opened and new homes built. We look forward to a new high school and highway.”
Alderman Jimmy Dabbs read a letter of thanks from Smithville to the surrounding community that pitched in to help.
Celia Fay Jackson
Roy “Peanut” Estis
Nellie Ruth Esttis
Mavis “Jean” Manley
Alan Scott Morris
Mary Lavern Patterson
Letter of thanks from the City of Smithville
For weeks we had heard about “Super Storms” approaching the South. In fact, on April 27, 2011, the weather warning sirens had already gone off several times. On the radar the threat of severe afternoon storms seemed probable, so the schools released early—buses taking our children to their families and homes. This was life-saving. By the time the storm hit Smithville, our busses had run, our schools were empty except for a few teachers and their children.
The EF5 tornado that ripped through our little town of a slightly over 900 residents overwhelmed us with its size and intensity. It was a half-mile wide and on the ground for close to three miles. Folks sought refuge in bath tubs, closets, grocery store freezers, bank vaults, and storm shelters. We huddled together and prayed for safety. Within seconds a town that had taken about200 years to build was gone, wiped out by the roaring fury of 205 mile an hour winds.
As the tornado continued down its path of destruction, we surveyed the damage. The shock and horror were mind-numbing as we moved into survivor mode—searching frantically for the living and respectfully gathering our lost loved ones. Television, newspaper, magazine, and radio reporters described in detail the unbelievable devastation. These images are burned into the hearts and minds of Smithville residents. With familiar landmarks now gone, we struggled to determine where former homes and businesses had been.
Within hours, help was here. Governor Barbour declared a “State of Emergency” for the town of Smithville and urged President Obama to do the same, which he did. First responders poured in bringing much needed manpower, equipment, nourishment, and loving encouragement. Those first days we worked on autopilot, sun-up to sundown, as we attempted to make sense of a senseless occurrence. The individuals and groups who cameto help during that time will forever be remembered. We recognize the important role you played. To those of you who provided food and water, cell phone service, first aid kits,leadership, financial help, clothes, transportation, media attention, help with clean-up and search-and-rescue: Thank you.
To those of you who have come forward later to help, we thank you. Thank you for letters, money, cards, and other donations–for phone calls and fundraisers. Thank you for website help, for searching and sending photographs of “Before” so that we can remember where we came from. Thanks to the many organizations which have helped us prepare for rebuilding, who have taught us the steps we need to take to begin again.
We appreciate our elected officials who have taken our cause to State and National levels. We are aware of our fragile position and the interest and support you continue to provide are invaluable to our recovery.
Smithville will be back. Smithville is coming back already. We have great plans for our recovery and know that, with God, all things are possible. We see His hand in the help we have received thus far and we know He will continue to be with us.
Thank you for coming today.