As Smithville officials and townspeople, joined by the governor and first lady, gathered Sunday to dedicate their new town hall, ominous weather forecasts abounded.
It was an eerie reminder, exactly three years to the day after a tornado devastated the Monroe County community, that Mississippi always has lived with the threat of dangerous weather this time of year and always will. Gov. Phil Bryant had to cut his time at the occasion short in order to get a briefing from state emergency management officials on the situation.
No community in Mississippi has taken a bigger hit proportionately from a natural disaster than Smithville. Most of the town was flattened, and 16 of its residents perished that Wednesday afternoon in 2011.
The death toll and property damage in the town of about 900 were proportionately greater than even the death and devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005.
Yet what a remarkable recovery the town has made. Businesses, churches and school facilities have been rebuilt and reopened. A resilient spirit by Smithville people coupled with the rallying assistance of neighboring Northeast Mississippi communities, as well as state and local government, have turned what could have been a death blow to the community into a rebirth.
Much remains to be done, of course, but what has been accomplished in three short years is testimony to the toughness and tenacity of the people of this region.
Sunday’s dedication of its town hall marked the last remaining government building to reopen. It was in the old town hall that Mayor Gregg Kennedy and staff took cover under desks when the storm raged through town. They survived, but the building was demolished, as were so many nearby and for blocks around.
While its ongoing recovery is inspiring, the reading of the names of the 16 people who died in the storm at Sunday’s town hall dedication stood as a stark reminder of the need to stay alert and pay heed to warnings when severe weather threatens, as it likely will today and perhaps into Tuesday.
According to the National Weather Service, since 1950 Mississippi has experienced 340 tornadoes in the month of April. That in itself is enough of a reminder to take weather warnings seriously this time of year. Basic precautions can and will save lives.