By NEMS Daily Journal
SMITHVILLE – The death toll is expected to rise today after a devastating tornado Wednesday left this north Monroe County community in shambles.
“People are walking around in shock with broken arms and all sorts of injuries, and folks are looking for their loved ones,” said Marsha Houck, a nurse practitioner who, like many volunteers, walked into the devastation along state Highway 25 and started helping in any way she could.
The tornado, which struck about 3:45 p.m., was part of an unprecedented round of tornadic activity that crossed the region and headed into Alabama and Georgia. And while communities throughout Mississippi were affected, none felt the fury the way Smithville did.
Early unofficial reports indicated that as many as 12 people could be dead, and the degree of destruction indicated that the number could go higher.
No building along a mile-long stretch through town was unaffected, and most were destroyed.
More than 15 volunteer fire departments were on the scene late Wednesday, along with EMS and law enforcement from throughout Northeast Mississippi. The roads were barely passable, and as the rain continued to fall, firefighters gathered in a service shed and received their orders from Chief Scott Morgan of the Smithville Volunteer Fire Department.
Some personnel were dispatched to the businesses and homes in the immediate vicinity to check for trapped or dead. Others were sent to places like Smithville High School, which also received substantial damage, and to surrounding neighborhoods.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson and a crew of deputies and inmates were among the ones assigned to search for survivors and recover the dead.
Johnson said his crew found five bodies while digging through the rubble. Homes with bodies in them were marked with two orange Xs.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Johnson. “This is something that no one can prepare for.”
A small utility shed beside a water tower served as a temporary morgue, and inside, as of 7 p.m., three bodies lay wrapped in black bags and personnel said more were almost certain to come.
The storm was part of a rash of tornadoes that swept the region Wednesday, carving a path of destruction that broke both bodies and buildings.
“This has just been an unprecedented situation,” said John Sirmon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis. “I think we’re going to see dozens of tornado tracks once this is over.”
In addition to the Monroe County fatalities, weather-related deaths in north Mississippi were reported in Lafayette, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Webster and Marshall counties. Deaths also were reported in Yazoo and Kemper counties.
Wednesday’s wave of storms started early in the morning. Hal Hicks, who lives in the Brewer community in south Lee County, was getting himself a cup of coffee at 2 a.m. as the weather worsened.
“I opened the storm door to see what was going on outside, and I saw and heard a transformer blow,” said Hicks, who was assessing the damage to his property Wednesday morning. “Then I went in the house and my wife and I got in the bathroom and before we knew it, it was over. I didn’t hear the roaring train sound that everyone else hears, just wind.”
The high winds, rain and hail, accompanied by tornado watches and warnings, pounded the region until late in the afternoon, when Chickasaw County was hit by two tornadoes and Monroe County suffered its destructive blow.
Reduce to splinters
In Smithville, a town of about 900 people, signs of the devastation were everywhere.
Entire neighborhoods were reduced to splinters. Toys floated in the creek like an oversized kiddie pool. People wandered around in a daze looking for loved ones. Power was out because of damage to TVA transmission lines, with no indications of when it would be restored.
James Allen of Monroe County was looking for his sister Mary, who had come to town to buy groceries. He hoped for the best but expected the worst.
“Dear God, let her be alive,” he said as he sifted through rubble at what used to be Piggly Wiggly. “I pray she is not dead. But I fear she is.”
At the football field, which once was the home of championship football teams, the goalposts had been twisted to look like white chocolate pretzels.
Tammie Vaughn was in her home, about a mile southeast of the command center, when the twister came through.
“There was a lot of fog from the rain, and all of a sudden the fog disappeared, swept into the swirl of the tornado and it sounded awful. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it,” said Vaughn, as she helped pick through the wreckage of her brother Robert’s home. The 1,700-square-foot structure was ripped to splinters, with fragments of the family’s life strewn like ashes in the breeze. There were board games, soft-drinks and clothes that belong to Robert’s wife and three children, and deer antlers from his hunting trips.
Robert emerged from the rubble, dirty and solemn, carrying a 16-gauge pump shotgun given to him by his grandfather, one of the few items he could salvage. “At least none of the family was home,” he said, shaking his head, “Thank God.”
Smithville’s campus, which houses kindergarten to 12th grades, was rendered unusable. School had dismissed 30 minutes early, at 2:30, and all of its roughly 600 students were off campus by the time the storm hit.
Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell said that the district would eventually work on a plan for students to complete the final three weeks of the academic year, but that school would not be resumed any time soon.
“Due to not just the tragedy at the school but the entire community, we will worry about normalcy in every-day life,” he said. “We will make plans for school but we will worry about that later.”
Roofs were damaged on every building on campus and downed power lines wove multiple webs around the facilities. Trees were cracked, limbs were everywhere and fence posts were bent to the ground. The tornado leveled the school’s gymnasium, ripping open its roof and leaving its contents exposed to the elements.
Basketball coach Greg Haynes was in a classroom at the school when the storm hit. He was preparing to leave school when he heard the tornado sirens sound. After going to the classroom to check the radar, he decided to stay where he was.
“This was the last cell that came through here, and it was right at the tail end of that cell,” Haynes said. “It was loud and you could see all of the debris outside of the window.
“It is by the grace of God that I’m here.”
Smithville Baptist Church and neighboring Smithville United Methodist Church were both destroyed. The Baptist church had an inverted Chevy truck on top of its roof where its offices once stood. The church bus lay on its side in a nearby ditch.
The town of Wren, about 17 miles away, also sustained significant damage, said Wren residents Amy and Eddie Pennington.
Eddie Pennington was driving when he saw multiple tornadoes.
“I stopped and I saw three tornadoes,” he said. “They split off and two went toward Smithivlle and one went toward Wren.”
Just before Monroe County was hit, two tornadoes swept across Chickasaw County, killing at least one person and injuring 10.
Emergency crews responded immediately and those hurt were quickly extracted from the debris field on Highway 8 about four miles east of Houston. Houses south of town on Highway 15 and in the Anchor community were also destroyed.
“We have at least one fatality,” said Andy Harmon, Chickasaw County coroner. He would not release details pending notification of next of kin.
Gary Staten, administrator of Trace Regional Hospital in Houston, said the hospital was treating 10 people but had no fatalities as of Wednesday night.
“We do have some very serious injuries,” said Staten.
Linda Griffin, deputy director of the Chickasaw County Emergency Management Agency said the first storm hit east of town about 3 p.m. She said the second tornado landed south of town a short time later.
“The first one damaged homes on Enon Road, Trebloc and then on to Egypt,” said Griffin. “The second one hit Anchor and crossed Highway 15 and then Highway 389.”
Griffin said the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency was in Houston assessing damage.
“We’re beginning to get control,” Griffin said at about 6 p.m. “There are a lot of trees down across roads and power is out over a wide area. Emergency crews – both medical and power – are hard at work.”
– Contributing to this story were Galen Holley, Danza Johnson and Chris Kieffer of the Daily Journal and Floyd Ingram of the Chickasaw Journal.
Among the north Mississippi fatalities outside Monroe County:
– Truck Driver Charles Jones, 57, of Oxford was killed about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday when his 18-wheeler truck hit a tree and ran off Mississippi Highway 30 east of Oxford.
– In Webster County, Coroner Steve Wells said a man was killed about 2:30 a.m. when a tree fell on his mobile home in the Ticky Bend community between Eupora and Mathiston.
– In Choctaw County, Wade Sharp, a lieutenant with the Covington Police Department, died while trying to protect his 9-year-old daughter from a falling tree at Jeff Busby Park in Choctaw County.
– Unidentified victims in Chickasaw and Marshall counties.