It was the 75th anniversary of one of the most deadly and destructive storms in U.S. history, and those still living remembered it as if it were yesterday. Clearly, too, that experience and its aftermath helped to shape the character and culture of Tupelo up to the present day.
Seventy-four years from now, the same is likely to be true for those people and communities that lay in the paths of the now-infamous tornadoes of April 27, 2011.
If there is a message in the interviews our reporters conducted in preparation for today’s near-first anniversary observance, it’s that they now view life from an entirely different perspective.
Smithville, Wren and other Northeast Mississippi communities that bore the brunt of that day were already closely knit places, small towns and hamlets where everybody knew each other. The death and destruction were particularly personal and palpable, even for those who escaped the worst directly.
Not surprisingly, there is a new and even stronger sense of connection since that day, and a new appreciation for every day that life brings.
Our stories today focus on Smithville, because it was there that the storms did their fiercest and most unforgiving damage and where the most people lost their lives.
Remember after 9/11 when a French newspaper ran the headline, “We’re all Americans now”? In a way, last year’s tornado produced the same sense of empathy and connection of everybody in our region with Smithville and the other hard-hit places. We may not have known anyone in those communities, but they suddenly felt more like neighbors – like part of us.
That spirit of connection drove an outpouring of financial aid and an army of volunteers into the hard-hit areas. Many were from far away, but the bulk came from closer to home.
Smithville today has a long way to go before it is fully functional. But the 900 hearty souls who inhabited that community, emerging from wherever they had sought shelter to see the wreckage around them, could have given up, believing they would be up against impossible odds.
Instead, they resolved to rebuild and renew, even reinvent, their community. And 360 days later, there are signs – incremental, but real nevertheless – of a slow rebirth.
Smithville obviously will never be the same again. The physical characteristics that defined it have been altered forever. Many of the people have not yet moved back, and some likely never will.
But as with Tupelo in 1936, Smithville is learning a lot about itself in the aftermath of this disaster. Its people are demonstrating, courage, perseverance and the will, as a famous Northeast Mississippi writer once put it, not only to endure but prevail.
Smithville may have learned lessons for itself, but it has many lessons to teach the rest of us as well.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.