SMITHVILLE – It’s a day Smithville will never forget.
After an ominous morning of threatening weather, a massive tornado tore into the small Monroe County town at 3:45 p.m. on April 27.
It stayed just seconds; long enough to change the community forever.
The twister, an EF5 with winds raging at more than 200 miles per hour, had torn a path of destruction a half-mile wide. It obliterated downtown, smashed 14 businesses, and damaged 150 homes, including several newly built brick houses that had been wiped clean from their foundations.
Sixteen people died in the city limits. Among them were an elderly couple who’d clung to each other for protection, a woman who’d flung herself atop two children to save them – they lived – and a teenager who’d tried to ride out the storm with her beloved dog.
An additional 40 people were injured.
Those who survived recall an eerie silence followed by a terrifying whoosh and the air being sucked from their lungs. Their homes, their possessions and, in some cases, their loved ones had been siphoned into the swirling vortex and discarded blocks or miles away.
“It was all raining and wind, and then it stopped and got real quiet,” recalled Dusty Sims, who had seen the dark funnel cloud approaching his Texaco shop and had just moments to react. He ran into the building, grabbed a vehicle lift, and wrapped his body around it in a tight embrace.
When the storm hit, Sims said, it yanked him like a giant vacuum. He could feel his body peeling away from the vehicle lift, and he forced himself to clamp on tighter. The walls collapsed around him, and still he hung onto the lift. Within seconds, it was over.
“It was the weirdest sound,” Sims said. “It was like a train, but a thousand times louder.”
When he emerged from the rubble of his shop and peered down Main Street, Sims said it seemed the entire landscape had changed. The tornado destroyed the post office, the police station, town hall, a Piggy Wiggly, Mel’s Diner, four churches and entire neighborhoods.
It was the most powerful storm to strike Mississippi in 40 years, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, and it was part of a violent, three-day outbreak that swept the southeastern United States. More than 300 tornadoes – 31 of them deadly – touched down between April 25-27. Together, they killed 321 people across six states, according to the National Weather Service.
The last day of the outbreak proved the worst. Mississippi’s woes began nearly three hours after midnight when an EF2 twister hit Webster County and sent a tree crashing down on a mobile home, killing a man inside.
Another, more powerful tornado struck the state exactly 12 hours later, this time in Kemper County. It killed three people as it ripped through Philadelphia and then continued on to Neshoba, Winston and Noxubee counties.
A half-hour later, the storm system produced its second Northeast Mississippi twister of the day. It struck Chickasaw and Monroe counties, killing four people. Twenty minutes afterward, another tornado struck Monroe County, this one wiping out Smithville before traveling almost east into Marion County, Ala., where it killed an additional seven people.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this bad,” said Josh Chisolm, a Smithville High School sophomore at the time who rode out the storm in his grandparents’ shelter.
Chisolm initially had rejected his grandparents’ pleas to join them in the shelter because it wasn’t even raining when the clouds moved in. He had heard tornado sirens blast on and off all day without incident and figured this would be no different.
For some reason, though, he relented to his grandparents’ request and descended into the sturdy underground structure. Then came the rain, pelting at the shelter hatch. And then the wind, which didn’t howl as much as it screamed, Chisolm said.
When the noise stopped, the trio emerged to find their neighborhood flattened and every house – including theirs – ripped to shreds.
“We’d probably be dead,” Chisolm said, “if we didn’t have this storm shelter.”
But the storm system wasn’t done yet. It went on to wreak havoc in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. It also saved another twister for south Mississippi. It struck shortly before dusk in Smith, Jasper and Clarke counties, claiming the lives of seven people.
By the end of the day, Mississippi had lost 36 people, with an additional 160 injured, and reported damage to more than 2,500 homes and more than 100 businesses, according to MEMA.
Alabama suffered the worst of the outbreak – 237 people lost their lives there, the National Weather Service said.
Today, nearly one year later, Smithville – like other communities ravaged by the storms – continues to recover with the help of its faith and its neighbors and an outpouring of aid from around the world.