SMITHVILLE – In the three-day span from April 25 to April 28, 2011, some 350 tornadoes broke out across the southern United States. Dubbed the Super Outbreak of 2011, these storms took the lives of 348 people as they tore through houses and towns, leaving destruction in their wake.
On April 27, 2011, 15 tornadoes rated EF-4 or higher tornadoes touched down in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. Of the 348 deaths they caused, 317 occurred on that Wednesday, and 16 were in the tiny town of Smithville, in Monroe County.
At 3:42 p.m., a tornado began along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway near the Glover Wilkins Lock. By the time it approached town, it had intensified to an EF-5 grade storm. The tornado followed along Highway 25, ripping up homes and businesses as it went. By the time the storm was gone, Smithville was degraded to shambles. The town’s only grocery store seemed as if its innards had been scooped out in the aftermath. Cars had been compacted into metal wads. The school, having only let students out for severe weather an hour prior, suffered irreparable damage. Within seconds, a town was diminished to only a few buildings.
“Don’t worry, we live in Smithville, Mississippi. We’re not even on the map! A tornado wouldn’t even know how to find us!”
These are the words of Nykia Burdine, a 2011 senior at Smithville High School, as she tried to comfort a nervous classmate. They are words she will never forget, because she thought it was just a bit of bad weather and nothing terribly serious.
Three hours later, she was in a storm cellar a mile away from the center of town where people like Will West, another senior who had just barely gotten home, was bunkered down with the family cats.
“I remember as the house started to shake. It felt like the house was breathing,” West said.
The tornado tore his house to pieces, and he was admitted to the North Mississippi Medical Center for two weeks. What had started as a normal day with a few clouds turned into a day of horror.
Now, five years later, the town barely resembles the Smithville of five years ago. Some people have chosen to rebuild and stay in Smithville while many left to move closer to jobs. What used to be a community of houses is now an array of concrete slabs of homes long gone. Two buildings that were built circa 1900 still stand. The dollar store rebuilt, but the grocery store did not, forcing residents to go to nearby Amory or Fulton to shop for fresh foods.
Smithville opened a new town hall, and the school has moved out of the temporary trailer classrooms back into the newly-rebuilt school. Considered the nucleus of the town, one of the most important parts of rebuilding was the Kindergarten through 12 facility.
Driving through Smithville may give off the idea that not much has happened since the storm. However, progress is slowly being made. The aftermath of the tornado has been a learning experience for the town officials. Mayor Gregg Kennedy said a great deal of things came to light about the town that had not previously been addressed.
“We were at a disadvantage because we didn’t have building codes or a comprehensive plan in place. It was really a deterrence for us to be able to capitalize on rebuilding,” Kennedy said.
However, the officials learned that they could adopt building codes so they could rebuild to modern day standards. The town also underwent a comprehensive plan and reorganized the planning committee, comprised of seven residents from the town to recommend what should be done to better the community.
Kennedy also pulls some inspiration from other areas devastated by natural disaster.
“It’s been a battle to rebuild like we wanted to. I go all over the state, all over the country, listening to people that it’s going to take time. They’re still rebuilding from Katrina in 2005. I talked with mayors and I have to step back. They’re at 11 years, and we’re at 5. I have to think, ‘What do we need to do to make sure we’re not stuck in that groove 10 years from now.'”
Piggly Wiggly in Smithville was the go-to place for people from surrounding communities as well as the outskirts of town. Now a slab remains of it, a sort of gravestone of commerce for Smithville. Grocery store companies have seen Smithville as a prospective new place of business, but they do not look past city lines.
“I get aggravated that these companies come in and do a survey, and they only count the rooftops inside the corporate limits,” Kennedy said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Well half our rooftops are gone.'”
The result is low numbers. Numbers so low, that businesses do not want to put in the investment. Kennedy has asked several times for surveys to span outside the city limit by as little as six miles, where he knows the housetops they seek are.
“We don’t need anything extravagant. As long as you have fresh meat, fresh produce and canned goods, that’s all we need.”
The town has conducted several studies of traffic along Highway 25, but the rooftops are the big indicator for businesses to know how they might profit in their investment. One company has conducted a 10-mile radius survey of Smithville and reported being delighted with results, confirming what Kennedy already knew.
“A 10-mile radius goes to the Alabama line, halfway to Fulton and over on the other side of Bull Mountain, where the population is that of a whole town,” Kennedy said. “That’s been the hardest sale is getting corporate people to look outside that.”
Gov. Phil Bryant and his office have been involved in trying to persuade the Dollar General, the town’s only retail store, to expand to a market, but to no avail.
Another battle that the town successfully overcame was the fight to keep the town’s zip code. After the demolition of the post office, the United States Postal Service had planned to do away with the zip code, routing all the mail through Amory’s post office. It was fought on a state and national level until it was settled that the community post office would be put in the Texaco gas mart, which proved to be cost effective in the long run.
The town, after five years, has yet to have a closeout on its Federal Emergency Management Agency project worksheets. Twenty-five percent of money spent to rebuild the town is owed to Smithville from the government and still awaits the closeout. The paperwork was submitted two years ago, stating that everything that FEMA was involved in was complete.
“What’s so bad about it is that when you start closeout, you have to relive everything from day one,” Kennedy said.
He has two five-drawer filing cabinets full of paperwork that will help him in conducting the closeout when it begins around the middle of May. The town had to take out a loan to rebuild but once closeout happens, the town will receive $480,000, which will put Smithville $67,000 in surplus.
“Yeah, we had to borrow money to be able to request a close out. But once we get our closeout, we as a town will be debt free.”