Lucky for Mayor Gregg Kennedy and Smithville, the blueprint on how to rebuild a small town after a tornado was written more than 800 miles away about four years ago.
The small farming town of Greensburg, Kansas, suffered a similar fate on May 4, 2007, when an EF-5 tornado decimated nearly everything within its city limits. Now four years later, it has been totally rebuilt with a newer image and a newer attitude, something Smithville hopes to accomplish as well.
The devastating EF-5 tornado that hit Smithville destroyed more than 80 percent of the town on the afternoon of April 27, killing 16 people and injuring many others as it tore through the center of town. In less than 30 seconds, most of Smithville was gone. Fourteen of the town’s 15 businesses and 150 homes were destroyed. What wasn’t completely destroyed was severely damaged, including the town's school.
When Kennedy climbed from under the pile of debris that once was Town Hall, what he saw was a whole lot of nothing where everything used to be. It was one thing to want to rebuild, but where do you start when everything is gone?
“Destruction,” said Kennedy when describing the scene after the storm. “Total destruction. Everything was gone. I didn’t even recognize my town and I’ve lived here all of my life. Debris was everywhere, people were hurt and I didn’t know what to do. Smithville was wiped off the map.”
After days of locating the dead and searching for survivors, Kennedy said he immediately began to think about rebuilding. When asked a day after the storm whether the town of only about 900 residents could rebuild, Kennedy definitively answered, “We will rebuild.”
Those were the same three words Mayor Bob Dixson spoke when asked the same question after the tornado destroyed his town of Greensburg. Eleven Greensburg residents were killed that day and many more injured. All the town’s businesses and more than 90 percent of the homes were destroyed in the community of 1,400 people.
“Unfortunately, I know exactly what those people are going through right now,” said Dixson. “The first month you are just trying to make a semblance of order out of everything. You have to decide where people are going to go, etc. All this while dealing with the emotions of losing family and friends and all your possessions. It’s a tough road.”
After the searching, mourning and praying, Dixson said it was time to get to work. The town was included in all the decisions the local government made dealing with the rebuilding plans.
“My wife and I knew right off that we were going to rebuild,” he said. “The whole community knew they would. So we got organized and got to work.”
A couple years after the tornado, Greensburg was rebuilt bigger, better and stronger. Still a small town, Greensburg is now greener, more energy efficient and tornado-ready than it ever has been.
Greensburg began rebuilding six months after the storm.
But, before a single building went up, the carcasses of the destroyed buildings had to be cleaned up. Dixson said cleanup is where rebuilding has to start, and that’s where the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state EMA stepped in. FEMA is one of the most important agencies when it comes to rebuilding, Dixson said. And without it, Greensburg would not have been able to rise from the rubble.
It’s been two months since Smithville was hit and already most of the debris is cleared, with the help of the emergency management agencies, in preparation for new construction.
Greensburg City Administrator Dennis McKinney was a Kansas state representative at the time of the storm. Like most everyone else in the town, his home was destroyed. McKinney helped pull agencies together to begin the recovery and rebuilding process.
“Getting all those agencies in early and on the same page was very important for us,” said McKinney. “They helped to get the process started and were a sign to people that things were going to get better.”
In Smithville, FEMA was on the ground the day after the storm hit. FEMA spokesman Michael McCurdy said because of the severity of the damage in Smithville, FEMA moved quickly to get the town declared a disaster area so resources could begin filtering in.
FEMA pays 75 percent for the rebuilding of all infrastructure and for government buildings and schools. The rest of the cost is split between the state agencies and the local government. The agency also handles the cost of cleanup as well as paying for overtime for city employees helping with cleanup.
But FEMA does not pay for the rebuilding of personal homes and businesses, and that’s where some confusion comes into the process.
“We provide grants that will pay for roof damage and other expenses to make sure the home is safe and livable,” said McCurdy. “But FEMA will not rebuild your home. But during these times, there are agencies that will help to do just that.”
McCurdy said he expects it to take at least several million dollars of state, federal and local funds to rebuild Smithville.
Temporary housing units like those used during Hurricane Katrina were set up in Smithville two weeks ago. That was an important step for Greensburg.
“The FEMA homes really helped because it kept people in town together,” said Dixson. “Instead of leaving, they were there helping with the cleanup and getting things prepared so they could rebuild their homes. I think this was maybe the most important step in our rebuilding.”
Dixson and McKinney said Greensburg turned to agencies like the U.S. Small Business Administration to help people rebuild. The SBA provides low-interest loans so residents and business owners in areas destroyed by disasters can rebuild at minimal cost. Dixson said the average home in Greensburg is worth $120,000, but thanks to the loans by SBA, residents were able to rebuild for nearly half that price.
Things already have started to fall into place for the residents of Smithville. In May, the town’s only bank, Renasant, reopened its doors in a temporary building. Dixson said seeing businesses reopen is a good sign of recovery.
Carter Naugher is Renasant Monroe County’s division president.
“A town needs a bank and we want to continue to be that bank in Smithville and to be a part of the community’s rebuilding efforts,” said Naugher. “For this town to come back they have to have a bank to serve the people and we’ve been there for them for 30 years and we will be there for 30 more.”
Brian McGonagill is the owner of Smithville’s Piggly Wiggly, the town’s only grocery store that was also destroyed in the storm. He is still in the process of cleaning up debris and isn’t sure if he’ll rebuild.
“I can’t say right now,” said McGonagill. “It’s still up in the air right now. We still have not settled with the insurance company. But If everything works out, we would love to rebuild in Smithville.”
Even though Greensburg is back in operation and is considered a more efficient town than it was before the storm hit, Dixson said everyone who left that May 4 day did not return. Kennedy said some people have left Smithville for good, but that was expected, considering the massive property loss for some.
Opportunity for change
Kennedy has done extensive research on Greensburg’s rebuilding and will go see the town for himself Tuesday. Seeing the before and after pictures of Greensburg gives him hope and confidence that Smithville can and will make a comeback.
“They have done a remarkable job from what I’ve seen and if they can pick themselves up and do it, then we definitely can,” Kennedy said. “I’ve researched their rebuilding efforts and I am looking forward to going to Greensburg to see it firsthand. This storm has given us an opportunity to get some things changed in Smithville and we will take full advantage of that opportunity just like they did.”
For the first time in the town’s history, Smithville now has building codes in place restricting where and what people can build in town, according to Kennedy. There now will be a designated area for mobile homes instead of allowing them to be placed anywhere in town. Kennedy also said Smithville will be more green and energy efficient, which was one of the main rebuilding aspects of Greensburg.
“We wanted to stay traditional but add some upgrades,” said Dixson. “Our downtown area is still a traditional downtown but we added things like thermal wells. We built buildings this time so they could stand a better chance of standing up to another storm. We are much more energy efficient than we were before. Those are the types of things Smithville has the opportunity to do now.”
And it’s those things that are exciting the mayor and Smithville residents.
One thing he wants to do in Smithville is make the town more attractive to young families looking for a place to put down roots.
“We want to make sure Smithville continues to be a great place for our residents to live and hopefully gain some new ones,” he said. “We know a lot of the old residents won’t come back and they can never be replaced. But I hope that we can continue to grow our population and Smithville is looked at as a place where people with young families want to come in and start a life.”