STORM RECOVERY UPDATES: Additional death attributed to Smithville tornado

 

By Staff and wire reports

7:17 p.m. - Verona Police Chief Leo Mask tells NEMS Daily Journal reporter Danza Johnson the owner of the grocery store in Smithville where Verona volunteer firemen were accused of stealing from during recovery efforts says it was a misunderstanding and no charges will be filed.

5 p.m. - United Way of Northeast Mississippi is giving $50,000 in unrestricted funds to assist victims of the tornados in our area.

Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in Tupelo provided $5,000 toward the relief efforts, with the remaining funds coming from United Way’s emergency reserves.

Moneys will be distributed as follows: $20,000 will be given to Smithville and Monroe County, $25,000 to Chickasaw County, and $5,000 will be held in reserve for additional needs as they arise. Funds will be distributed in a lump sum payment to Monroe County’s United Way of Greater Monroe County and Chickasaw County’s Salvation Army in Houston.

United Way of Northeast Mississippi serves 7 counties: Lee, Itawamba, Union, Chickasaw, Prentiss, Pontotoc, and Tishomingo. Executive committee members, before voting to take money out of reserves, expressed great sympathy for residents all over Northeast Mississippi with damage or losses due to the storms occurring on April 27th.

With any questions, please contact Melinda Tidwell, Executive Director of United Way of Northeast Mississippi at 662-841-9133.

3 p.m. - From the Mississippi Highway Patrol - The following information was released at the 1:30 p.m., staff meeting:

1. Sadly the total fatalities for Monroe County/Smithville has risen to 16 due to passing of another resident that was hospitalized from injuries received in the Storm, seven days ago.

2. Specific request for donations for this date is: water hoses, rakes and brooms.

3. There is showers set up for Smithville Residents at the community center on Franklin Street.

4. Curfew hours have been extended till 7:30pm. The new curfew hours will be from 7:30pm--6:00a, until further notice.

5. A town meeting will be held this evening at 5pm and the First Baptist Church in Smithville.

6. A community meeting will be held tomorrow evening at Wren, 5 p.m., at the Wren Fire Station/Community Center.

1:30 p.m. - From the Attorney General Office - An Itawamba County resident has been arrested after allegedly attempting to claim disaster relief to which she was not due, announced Attorney General Jim Hood today.

Investigators with the Consumer Protection Division of the Mississippi Attorney General 's Office and the Monroe County Sheriffs Office, following leads from the Attorney General's visit to Smithville, MS, yesterday arrested Pamela Thompson, age 53, who lives just outside Smithville limits at 487 Highway 25 South, in Itawamba County. Thompson was arrested on two counts of Fraudulent Use of Identity.

An investigation revealed that Thompson went to the United Way disaster relief center located on Industrial Drive in Smithville (Monroe County) and told the people who were running the United Way that she need to get some items for a close relative and his family whose home was destroyed in the storm.

Thompson then got two grocery carts full of goods, and gave the name and address of her relative as the location to where the goods were going. She then left and came back for another round of goods 30 minutes later.

The scam began to unravel when the wife of Thompson's relative came to pick up some necessities.

Investigators found the majority of the goods in Thompson's home, which was not damaged in any way by the storm. She was arrested and transported to the Monroe County Jail.

"We appreciate the assistance of Sheriff Andy Hood and his deputies in this case," said Attorney General Hood. "It is unfortunate but true that disasters like this bring out the best and the worst in folks. Rest assured that we will go after the worst."

If anyone suspects fraud in the aftermath of this storm, please contact Monroe County Sheriff Andy Hood directly at 662-315-4399 or the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office at 1-800-281-4418.

If convicted Thompson faces a $5,000 fine and five years behind bars per each count. The penalty doubles upon a second conviction.

As with all cases, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

***

1:25 p.m. - Verona Police Chief Leo Mask tells NEMS Daily Journal reporter Danza Johnson his department is investigating allegations that Verona volunteer firefighters took items from a Smithville grocery store while assisting in recovery efforts. Names of the firefighters or other details will not be released while the investigation is going on.

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UPDATE 11 a.m.: Hazel Noe, age 80, of 60013 Poplar Street in Smithville died at 11 a.m. today, Wednesday, May 04, at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo The Monroe Journal reports. Her death was due to injuries received when the Smithville tornado struck her home on April 27th at 3:45 p.m., according to Monroe County Coroner Alan Gurley.

Her funeral arrangements will be announced by E.E. Pickle Funeral Home in Amory.

This brings the total death count from the storm to 15 in Smithville and to 16 total deaths in Monroe County.

***

The Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Rain added to the misery of those in several Southern states trying to salvage what they could from homes badly damaged by deadly twisters, leaving them shivering in unseasonable temperatures in the low 50s.

Becky Curtis sat in the bathroom, one of the only dry spots in her small red-brick apartment in gray, chilly, Tuscaloosa on Tuesday, sorting through old cassette tapes. In another room, rain dripped through holes in the ceiling onto her hardwood floors.

"We're trying to get all this stuff out of here as fast as we can to save some mementoes," she said. The rain "definitely does not help."

Though the sun was supposed to be out again Wednesday in Birmingham, temperatures the next couple days are forecast to be cooler there and in other areas of the South where many lost everything, including coats, sweat shirts and sweaters, leaving them with little to protect themselves from the chill.

The rain also didn't make the grim search for possibly more bodies under splintered homes and businesses any easier. The death toll in Alabama was reduced after officials started counting again because they were worried some of the victims might have been tallied twice.

Officials believe 236 people died in Alabama, accounting for about two-thirds of the 329 people killed in all, making it the nation's deadliest twister outbreak since the Great Depression.

At a makeshift relief center in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store, volunteers in ponchos and rain gear were distributing assorted goods under a drizzly sky Tuesday.

"We've had a few deliveries," said volunteer Alfredo Ordonez, who was part of a group arriving from Tennessee. "Not as many as yesterday or the day before."

He said the center was running low on small tarps as people already picked them up in anticipation of the rain.

The financial and economic toll is far from being calculated.

Besides homes, hundreds of factories and other businesses were destroyed, and many others were left without electricity, throwing thousands out of work. It comes in an area where many people were struggling to make ends meet even before the twisters flattened neighborhoods in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi. Unemployment in March ranged from 9.2 percent in Alabama to 10.2 percent in Mississippi.

The tornado that obliterated contractor Robert Rapley's house also swept away his livelihood, destroying his saws and his paint sprayer. He now faces the prospect of trying to recover with no way to earn a living.

"We lost everything," Rapley said as he climbed on the wreckage. "I can't even go to work."

Curtis Frederick, 28, couldn't find any work to provide for his three children aside from delivering newspapers. Then a twister wiped out his mobile home park in Tuscaloosa.

"There's a lot of people that need help," he said. "We're struggling already from the economy being so bad."

One of the twisters destroyed a Wrangler jeans distribution center that employed 150 people in Hackleburg, an Alabama town of about 1,500. The town is in a county with an unemployment rate of nearly 13 percent.

"That one industry is the town," said Seth Hammett, director of the Alabama Development Office. "Until they get back up and going again, that town will not be the same."

VF Corp., Wrangler's parent company, said it is looking into setting up distribution operations in another location nearby to allow people to get back to work quickly, and employees will continue getting pay and benefits in the meantime. Eric Wiseman, chairman and CEO, said VF is also establishing a help center where workers can get food, water, gift cards and other critical supplies.

A Toyota engine plant in Huntsville with 800 employees lost power and was knocked out of commission when a twister damaged electrical transmission lines. Toyota said Tuesday it is not clear when electricity will be restored.

In Smithville, Miss., the storms heavily damaged three facilities owned by Townhouse Home Furnishings, which makes sofas and other furniture, said CFO Tony Watson. With 150 employees, the company was the town's biggest employer, Alderman Jimmy Dabbs said.

The company will relocate its Smithville operations to a publicly owned building in Mantachie, about a 30 minute drive from Smithville. About 25 Smithville employees are already back to work at other plants in nearby towns.

"We're trying to keep our people working so they can get a paycheck. It could be six months or a year before we reopen in Smithville and they have to keep up with orders or we'll lose out accounts," Watson said.

Georgia put insured property losses at $75 million or more, while Dan Batey of Farm Bureau Insurance of Tennessee said his company expects to pay out somewhere around $100 million in claims. Officials in Mississippi and Tennessee had no immediate estimates.

In the Pleasant Grove section of Birmingham, Katrina Mathus has not returned to work since a tornado blew out her windows, knocked out her electricity and exposed insulation she said is causing her asthmatic daughter to wheeze.

The 35-year-old single mother of three daughters said she is having trouble sleeping.

"Every time I close my eyes I see trees, people walking and crying, debris everywhere," Mathus said.

People thrown out of work by the storms will qualify for unemployment benefits as well as federal disaster aid.

It's tough to predict how long it will take for the stricken areas to recover, but the rebuilding projects could at least soften the economic blow.

"The rebuilding is huge," said Sam Addy, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama. "That brings in a lot of jobs and cash flow into the local area. For the larger economy, it's a loss."

In Birmingham, Rapley and his wife, Adrienne, survived the twister by taking cover in a storage room next to his garage. He carried her in — she suffers from a brain injury — and then they prayed: "The Lord is my shepherd." The deed to his property is gone, whisked away by the tornadoes. The house they shared for 20 years is destroyed.

For now, they are staying at a hotel, hoping to get federal aid soon.

"It's very expensive," Rapley said. "We're spending our last dime right now."

***

Reeves reported from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Also contributing to this report were Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn.; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; Eric Tucker in Birmingham, Ala., Ray Henry in Atlanta and Phil Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.

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