By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
SMITHVILLE – Sharon Pickle has seen the people around her change during the past 12 months.
“Neighbors come over more often,” said the Smithville resident, who lives just a few blocks away from the path of last April’s devastating EF5 tornado. “We speak more often now because they know what can happen in 10 seconds. I think that has done a lot.”
It has been nearly a year since the funnel cloud slipped out of the stormy sky and ran its fateful path around 3:45 p.m. last April 27. By the time it had left its mark of destruction along Highway 25, 16 people were killed, 150 houses were torn apart and 14 businesses were destroyed.
“It has been a pretty tough year,” Pickle said.
The 360 days have eased Smithville into its rebuilding process, but the twister’s ugly scars remain. New homes dot the town, and several businesses have come back, but Highway 25 remains particularly bare.
Perhaps the most noticeable landmark along the town’s main corridor today is the longtime city cemetery that also holds some of the tornado’s victims. The west side of town that once held a large subdivision now has large vacant swaths.
Population has decreased from a census count of 887 before the tornado to about 500 now.
“Our biggest need for year two is rooftops,” said third-term mayor Gregg Kennedy. “What we need now is for the public to understand, yes, we are coming back. We are going to clean up this mess and rebuild our town.
“People who know they are not coming back, we need them to make their property available for young couples who want to build and start a family. We will have a new school with modern facilities, and that will be a big draw.”
A grocery store would be nice too, most residents say. When Piggly Wiggly closed its doors after the tornado, residents were forced to travel to Amory or Fulton to get their necessities.
“I don’t like going to Amory to get groceries, but what choice do I have?” said resident Ali Staley. “I try to go to town once a week. The way the price of gas is, forget it.”
Good news may be coming in that area soon, Kennedy said.
“We have consultants trying to land a grocery store, and we are hoping within the next two weeks, we will have an announcement on a grocery store,” he said.
The mayor also noted other developments that could help spur growth. The city’s new baseball and softball complex was recently completed, adding some life to the west side of Highway 25. Work will begin soon on a new government complex that will house all city departments – which are now using makeshift buildings or modular units.
A memorial park eventually will be created near the government building, Kennedy said, noting it should help anchor the area of town that is now most vacant.
The Access Family medical clinic will also move across the street to the area where the Baptist church once sat, a move that Kennedy expects to foster further development and hopefully lure a drug store to town.
“It is coming back, but it is coming back slowly,” said resident Joe Morgan. “So much was destroyed, and bits and pieces are coming back.”
The city’s rebuilding efforts, Kennedy said, have been slowed by the processes required for insurance payments and Federal Emergency Management Agency repayments.
The first priority was to repair the city’s sewers, and then came the restoration of the ball fields. When the city gets reimbursed by FEMA for that project, it will begin work on the government complex.
“When you don’t have $1 million in the bank, you have to go by that slow process, and complete one project at a time,” Kennedy said.
Efforts to rebuild the school’s campus also were slowed by bureaucracy, as the Monroe County School District has been trying to get its insurance funding and to learn whether the school’s buildings would be placed on the state historic list, which would have complicated their reconstruction.
They were not placed on the list, and the goal is to have the new campus ready by August 2013. Among its most prominent features will be a gym built strong enough to withstand 300 mile-an-hour wind. It will serve as a storm shelter for the entire staff and student body.
“One of the major positives that will come out of this will be the new campus itself,” said Smithville School Principal Chad O’Brian. “All of the buildings will be either new or greatly improved.”
In the meantime, students have class in 48 modular buildings that were installed on a county-owned property in town.
“We couldn’t ask for a better setup, given the circumstances,” O’Brian said. “We are fortunate to be where we are.”
Memories of the tornado remain strong, too. Pickle said she knew all 16 victims. She thinks about them every day.
When the weather gets bad, she said, people tend to panic more.
“I think we all look at it differently than before,” she said. “We all thought it would never come through here. Well, it did.”
That newfound respect is manifest in the number of personal storm shelters that have popped up throughout Smithville.
“A lot of people here have them,” said resident C.D. Leech. “Some are above ground and some are under ground. There were a few before, but nothing like there are now.”
As residents think back to the first days after the tornado struck, many also have vivid memories of the army of volunteers who came from across the nation to help a reeling community.
“Every day, I thank God for all of the volunteers and good people here,” Staley said, fighting emotion one year later. “I get teary every time I think about it.
“It is enough to scare the heck out of you, but we made it, we survived it, and I hope to God we don’t have to go through another.”
Such a realization of vulnerability is what Pickle said has led to a new attitude among neighbors. It is a change that others have noticed, too.
“Most everyone has really had a change of heart since the tornado,” said Lamar Standifer, who lives just outside of Smithville but who long done business in town. “Everyone is trying to help each other now instead of pulling in a different direction.”