Days are good in Smithville again.
People there see sky above and ground below — that adds up to a happy circumstance if your world has been flipped upside down in deadly fashion.
Returning to normal from the death and destruction that roared down Main Street at 3:44 in the afternoon on April 27 still has a distance to go.
The grief of losing 16 friends and neighbors can ease at times but never heal for the 950 or so people who lived in the Northeast Mississippi town that day. The K-12 school, Town Hall, police station, post office, bank, medical clinic, churches and other functions vital to the life of a community are still in temporary trailers. The sole grocery store — a Piggly Wiggly — has been demolished and won’t be rebuilt. Live oaks more than century-and-a-half old disappeared, leaving the town with a barren, prairie like appearance.
So why is Mayor Gregg Kennedy upbeat?
For one, signs of a new beginning have replaced the moonscape he found on Main Street and beyond after crawling out from under a Town Hall meeting table that unforgettable day. And the 525 people who still call the one-square-mile community home are hunkered down for the long term, giving the third-term mayor confidence he will see the town come back from the destruction of the most fierce tornado to hit Mississippi in 45 years.
Big moral boosts have come in recent weeks with the return of Doughbellys Pizzeria and Mel’s Diner, two mainstays plowed under by the EF-5 tornado estimated at a half-mile wide with a wind force of 205 mph.
Dec. 2 brought the town together for a Christmas parade on Mississippi Highway 25 to Pine Street followed by the planting and lighting of 16 Christmas trees in memory of the 16 townspeople who perished April 27.
Afterward, people gathered at Mel’s Diner, owned by Melanie and Bobby Edwards. “We had people standing all along the wall waiting to get a table,” said Bobby Edwards.
Mayor Kennedy was among the people waiting. “Melanie and Robert were apologizing for the table wait. I told them I had been waiting months for this and I can wait a few more minutes.
“It’s just a blessing to sit down there and drink a cup of coffee. … We’re getting some normalcy back into town. And healing, too.”
Up to Code
Early on in the tornado’s aftermath, the town decided it must come back sturdier than before through adoption of state and national building codes, neither of which were in place before April 27. The 60,000 tons of debris left in the town attested to the need for building codes and a more comprehensive approach to growth planning.
The first decision: No more mobile homes in the town limits. The tornado took out the 20 or so that were there. “They accounted for a lot of the fatalities,” Kennedy said.
The steel buildings going up now are being built to code and will have masonry veneers, Kennedy said. “It’s looking good.”
Progress on Main Street
Smithville’s largest employer, Townhouse Home Furnishings, received a knockout blow April 27 and had to move its manufacturing operations to another site 30 miles away in Mantachie, though it kept many of its 200 Smithville workers willing to make the drive.
But like a number of the businesses in Smithville, Townhouse Home Furnishings is coming back bigger and better, Kennedy said. “They will restart production in January” in a new Smithville plant.
Initially, the plant will operate with about 60 workers. “They expect to get back to the 200,” the mayor said. “They are going to retool the operation here. They are going to add 40,000 square feet to get to 180,000 square feet.”
Smithville will also get its hardware store back. Right now Smithville Hardware is operating out of a warehouse near its store destroyed by the storm. “They say they are going to build back,” Kennedy said. “They’ve got frontage right on 25.”
Renasant Bank, the lone bank, has been doing business in a temporary trailer and says it wants to build back closer to Town Hall, according to Kennedy, who said the town still has not decided exactly where the new Town Hall will go.
Carter Naugher, Renasant’s Monroe County market president, said the bank wants to put its new building near the center of town activity. “Everything will be complementary if they are located adjoining each other,” he said.
The post office will return as a “village post office” in which postal services will be provided at the Texaco T-mart, the mayor added.
Access Family Medical Center, which reopened in a temporary trailer, is also on its way back, Kennedy said. “They have plans to rebuild bigger and prettier and to add services,” he said, and noted the clinic serves military veterans in a 7-county region.
The tornado claimed four of Smithville’s five churches, with only the Smithville Church of Christ left standing. All four will be back, Kennedy said.
“The Methodist church is starting to rebuild this week,” he said in an early December interview. “Smithville Baptist will rebuild in April and the two other Baptist churches have started rebuilding.”
Smithville Baptist has installed a pair of temporary metal buildings to accommodate its services while other congregations gather for worship in tents set up on town parking lots, Kennedy noted.
Smithville’s K-12 school will be rebuilt but insurance snags have slowed progress, according to Kennedy.
On the recreation front, Smithville’s state champion high school girls softball team — the Lady Noles — and other sports teams will soon be playing in a new youth park. “We’ve got a contract let,” the mayor said. “We’re hopefully playing youth baseball and what have you by March 15.”
The mayor is further encouraged by the homes going up. “Today, if you come into town from the south end the first thing you are going to see is new homes started,” he said. “Before the tornado we had a lot of small homes on small lots. Now we’re going to see larger homes.”
Many of those residents bought the lots on which their neighbors had had homes. Most of these neighbors were elderly and moved to retirement communities in Tupelo. “They just didn’t want to rebuild at this stage of their lives,” Kennedy said.
Since its reopening in a new, larger building, the Dollar General store has been a source of grocery items for Smithville, including some frozen foods. But the discount retailer is limited in what it can offer and residents who want full grocery choices must drive the 11 miles to Amory or 14 miles to Fulton, the two towns Smithville is sandwiched between.
“The biggest issue we’re facing right now is a grocery store,” Kennedy said, lamenting the loss of the Piggly Wiggly.
“We’ve had some folks come out here form Yazoo City” to scout the potential for a grocery store.
Naugher, the Renasant market president, said a FEMA economic development committee he chairs has contacted a number of independent grocers. He said the committee is preparing a proposal for the state Legislature that would create incentives to bring a grocery to town, most likely in the form of tax advantages.
Fragility of life
The 50-year-old Kennedy, who works at golf club manufacturer True Temper Sports in Amory, tends to town business starting around 3:30 p.m. each weekday. In the days after the tornado, “I didn’t sleep for five days,” he said.
He had a roof missing from his house. “I told my wife and son to take care of the house and I’m going to take care of the town,”
From those days of bringing bodies to a temporary morgue on makeshift stretchers, “I learned how fragile life is.
“Trying to identify the dead – that’s when it hits home. Some we had to identify were people I was on the phone with not an hour before this tornado.”
He was getting the calls while at Town Hall. “One of the ladies had called me wondering how bad this line of storms were. I told her she had better find a place to hide, that it was going to get pretty rough. And it was.”
She later was among the dead whom Kennedy identified.
The mayor still marvels at his own survival – and the survival of the two clerks — Ann Seales and Jane Cantrell — who were in Town Hall with him in the moment before the storm. The police chief had just called with an urgent warning to take cover. “I told the secretaries to get under the boardroom table.”
“That table did not move one inch,” he said.
“I spoke at an event this week and got to thinking why I told them to get under that table when I could have told them to get under their own desks. It was just instinct. I honestly believe the Lord looked out for us three that day.”
He said when he crawled out form under the table, the sky was a clear blue. And Smithville was gone.
But it’s going to be back, Kennedy said. “I may not live long enough to see it. We’re not rebuilding for my generation. We’re rebuilding for generations to come. I’m talking about the kids in elementary school right now. They’ll have a beautiful place to live and call home.”
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