Friday, July 29, 2011

A look back: Aftermath of the Smithville, MS EF-5 tornado

Approximately 130 miles to the southeast of Memphis, in the heart of northeast Mississippi timber land on a two-lane state highway, lies the small town of Smithville.  Or perhaps I should use the past tense... no, the good folks of Smithville would strongly disagree.

On April 27, 2011, at 3:45 in the afternoon, the world according to Smithville changed forever.  For the first time since 1966, an EF-5 tornado struck the state of Mississippi and literally leveled this small town of 882 (2000 Census).  According to the National Weather Service in Memphis, peak wind reached 205 mph and the maximum width in the Smithville area was 1/2 mile. The tornado's path started just southwest of Smithville and continued for over 35 miles in northwest Alabama.  A total of 17 persons lost their lives in Smithville with an estimated 40 injured. 18 families lost their homes, another 52 had some sort of damage. The post office, police station, and water and sewage systems were destroyed and another 7 businesses, mostly on Highway 25, or Main Street, were severely damaged.

The homes that were destroyed were not shacks or dwelt in by lower income residents. They were fairly new (most under 10 years old), well-built, two-story homes that were bolted to their foundations. And many of these homes were literally swept off their foundations by the category 5-force wind. The plumbing in many cases was shredded and appliances went missing. Even a resident's 1965 Chevy parked in front of his destroyed home was never found, probably laying in pieces in the shredded forest nearby.

Three months later, on July 22, I had a chance to tour what was left of this small hamlet.  I had never observed the damage path of an EF-5 twister and what I saw was devastating, yet hopeful, all at once.  I could tell that the spirit of the residents of Smithville lived on, even though literally blocks of houses had been demolished and bulldozed. There were dozens of slabs, some with tile flooring where kitchens and bathrooms once stood, others with scarred linoleum that had been ripped apart by gale-force wind. I recall one remaining pile of debris at the site of the Smithville Baptist Church which contained the remnants of the church organ. Another image that stands out is the former site of the Smithville Post Office, zip code 38870, now just a slab surrounded by a small parking lot and a row of battered post office boxes - the only objects more than about 6" tall that were still standing in that area. But perhaps the most striking scene was a sea of slabs where several lives were lost back-dropped by the Smithville Cemetery, which forfeited its funeral home to the storm and likely gained several more unfortunate souls.

Despite the devastation, however, there were signs of hope.  Many empty lots and concrete foundations that lived a longer life than the walls and roofs that once completed them were marked with an American flag. One business had hung a handcrafted banner displaying an image of the Mississippi Magnolia that read "Once you choose hope, anything's possible." And alongside an empty side street stood a vibrant and color-filled floral cross that stood as tall as the hopes of the people of Smithville.  In place of some businesses, like the downtown bank, there were temporary trailers, set up to maintain commerce. The Fire and Police Departments - heroic first responders in the last few days of April - had re-located and continued to operate, a few new concrete slabs had been poured as rebuilding commenced, and repairs being made to structures that managed to survive.  Below you will find a slideshow of some photos I took of the devastation and signs of hope.

I was fortunate enough to be able to collaborate on this post with an individual who knows first-hand how the people of Smithville have managed to live on in hope, but also knows the power that Mother Nature possesses. Jennifer Watson, weekday meteorologist at Tupelo's WTVA Channel 9, offers these thoughts:

April 27th will be a day meteorologists across the country will never forget. From my experience working in Mississippi, there seems to be at least one day just about every year during the spring that all the parameters line up to create a recipe for disaster. Last year (2010), it was the day of the Yazoo City tornado. Remembering the death and devastation that it caused, we were all hoping the models were going to be wrong about April 27th and that there would not be a repeat, but God had other plans.

There was not just one round of severe storms on April 27th, but three. The first started during the early morning hours between 2:00-5:00 am, storms spawned several tornadoes, including an EF-3 that took at least four lives. The weakest of the three rounds occurred during the mid morning hours, between 9:00-11:00 am, with mostly straight-line wind damage being the result of those storms. The third and final round of storms, including the one that produced the Smithville tornado, started developing along the Mississippi River just before noon. As fast as the storms developed, they almost instantaneously started rotating and became tornadic. The storms were traveling as fast as cars drive on highways, near 60 mph, which made the urgency of making sure people seeked shelter, yet stayed calm, of dire importance.

Of note was the number of debris balls on radar that day. Even veteran meteorologists stated how they had never seen so many in their careers. A debris ball is a clear indication that a tornado is on the ground, due to its high reflectivity and its location at the end of a hook echo, likely signifying that large objects are being picked up by strong winds. Tornado warnings were issued well in advance of the storms, with some, including the residents of Smithville, receiving a warning time near 45 minutes. As the storm approached Smithville, it was already producing a tornado that was later rated an EF-3 by the NWS. Just southeast of the town, the storm weakened slightly weakened. NWS survey teams later confirmed that during this time, the tornado briefly lifted before dropping back down again as a stronger EF-5 tornado just outside of Smithville.

It became evident on radar that significant damage had occurred in Smithville as the debris ball became increasingly enhanced as it tore through the small town. When the first reports and images started pouring in from the town, my heart sank. One of our anchors who lives in Smithville was on his way to the station when the tornado struck. He turned around and drove back, only to find complete devastation of a town he once knew. He called into the station and gave a first-hand account of the chaos he was seeing, not even an hour after the tornado ravaged the town. The images he described were horrifying to hear, especially as tornado warnings continued across the region. How he maintained his composure while walking through the streets just after an EF-5 tornado tore through, I will never know.

Within the hours and days after April 27th, the scope of what had occurred in Smithville and the long road of recovery that lay before residents, became clear. Rescue and recovery efforts continued for several days after the disaster in hopes of finding the missing still alive. Residents who had survived tried to salvage anything that was left from the storm's destruction. Some seemed to walk around almost lost with despair. As the town's landmarks were scraped clean off the earth, it appeared that no building was unscathed by the powerful winds.

Despite the horrific tragedy that had occurred, one thing was apparent - the spirit of the people of Smithville was not lost. With an outpouring of help and support from neighbors and people all over the country, residents knew their town was going to prosper again. Amazingly, only four days after the town of Smithville was almost scraped off the map, signs of hope and the strength of the community continued to shine through. That Sunday, following the devastating tornado, residents gathered for prayer at the Smithville Baptist Church like they would any other Sunday. Though this Sunday, instead of sitting inside the church, they were sitting outside under a tent on the concrete slab - all that was left after the tornado. Residents prayed for lost loved ones and the strength and courage to press on.

After rescue and recovery missions were completed, the start of clean up and debris removal began. The people of Smithville stayed positive, despite knowing that a long road lay ahead. A symbol of hope from the beginning was the Mayor of Smithville himself, Gregg Kennedy, a life-long resident of the town who remained strong for his community in the eyes of despair. A humble man, he watched firsthand as his hometown was almost completely destroyed. Though obviously heartborken, he never once showed it during any of the press conferences or interviews he was asked to do. He had faith in the town and its people and knew they would return and have a stronger community than before the storm. Now, over three months after the horrible disaster, the debris is almost gone with rebuilding continuing to occur. The town still has a long way to go, but as each day goes by, it gets stronger and closer to what it once was.

Finally, this video was shot on my tour of the town. I hope it provides some sense of both the loss incurred and the hope that lives on. The music track I chose seemed appropriate, MercyMe's 2007 hit "Bring the Rain."  A special thanks to WTVA's Jennifer Watson for her candid commentary.  It is greatly appreciated. Your comments on this post are welcomed below.

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Anonymous said...

Wow, that is so sad but it is good to hear how optimistic the people are, its a shame the media didn't cover this more.......... The post was great, thanks to the both
of you.

Anonymous said...

I drove through there last year and you can still see some slabs amongst all the new buildings.