Officials begin looking toward post-tornado future

smithvilleWINSTON COUNTY — Rescuers were still looking for people missing after last Monday’s tornado when Louisville and Winston County officials started thinking about long-term recovery.

The county of 19,000 people in east Mississippi faces three major challenges — housing for hundreds left homeless, rebuilding its health care system after the twister shattered its hospital and jump-starting storm-damaged businesses.

Rebuilding will be slow, and not all residents may stick with it to the end. Take it from Smithville.

Just last Sunday, the Monroe County town celebrated completion of a new town hall, a milestone on the third anniversary of a tornado that killed 16 residents and destroyed or damaged more than 150 homes. The police department, the post office, a school, the only grocery store and four Smithville’s five churches were hit.

Smithville has rebuilt the buildings. But the pre-tornado population of 900 has fallen to about 600.

“There are lasting effects,” said the Rev. Wes White of Smithville Baptist Church. Known to his congregation as Brother Wes, White rode out the 2011 tornado at the church with residents from a mobile home park as the church disintegrated. Somehow, all survived.

Five members of the congregation elsewhere at the time of the storm died.

“It’s a process. We don’t forget. We look back with love and appreciation for those that we lost, but we keep our eyes focused on how the Lord can use us today,” White said. “What we’re trying to do as a community is not just restore what was, but we have a vision of what can be.”

Even as Winston County buries its 10 dead, officials are trying to create a vision for rebuilding.

“This is about doing community development and not economic development,” said Gerald Mills, executive director of the Winston County Economic Development Partnership. “It’s about starting over.”

With more than 100 people in shelters and others staying with relatives, housing is a pressing need. Only perhaps 40 houses were for sale in Winston before the storm, and the 6,600-resident town of Louisville already had what Mills called “a critical shortage” of rental options.

Apartments and motel rooms are more plentiful 30 miles away in Starkville. But there is a risk people won’t return to Winston. Once they move, it may be simpler or cheaper to stay there.

“The least thing they can afford to do is drive 50 miles to stay in a motel or rented apartment,” said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Robert Latham.

Latham said state officials are seeking federal temporary housing assistance, and that could turn out to be mobile homes. Louisville could have to change ordinances to allow a group site, said Mayor Will Hill.

“We don’t want people to leave here,” he said.

One way to keep residents anchored is to ensure they have jobs.

Oregon-based plywood maker Natron Wood Products was within weeks of hiring production workers at a plywood mill it purchased. But the tornado obliterated mill buildings, meaning the company won’t reach its employment target of 200 any time soon.

Company counsel Todd Alberts said Natron believes damage exceeds the $20 million covered by insurance, but the company isn’t giving up.

“We are going to stay there and we are going to reconstruct that facility,” Alberts said.

He said Natron hopes to start reconstruction by July 1. But Alberts said the company may ask state and local governments to help make up some rebuilding costs not covered by insurance. In any case, hiring will be delayed. It also means Natron won’t be buying logs, depriving local loggers of jobs.

The tornado also damaged a 650,000-square foot, county-owned building that housed artificial flower distributor Teters Floral Products Co., which employs 60 to 100 people depending on the season. Mills said the county is trying to reroof the building quickly.

Health care is a key challenge.

Damage to Winston Medical Center deprived the county of 27 inpatient beds. Without the emergency room and physician’s offices, the only X-ray machine in Louisville is at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s mobile hospital, a truck parked at Wal-Mart.

Dr. Sam Suttle has been named the county’s medical director, with an eye to providing sufficient care to local residents. On Wednesday, he was seeing patients at the only functioning physician’s office in Louisville, a storefront clinic on Main Street.

“Our goal is ambulatory and emergency care,” Suttle said, until the hospital can be rebuilt.

A federal field hospital is on its way from North Carolina, and officials hope to have it operational within two weeks. It could stay a year or longer. At least three other medical offices are likely to be set up, Suttle and other officials say.

Lex Taylor, Winston Medical Center board chairman, said the hospital would seek to pay for at least some of its restoration using insurance. He said the hospital has a “good healthy balance sheet,” and can afford to invest. The county is also likely to get aid from FEMA to rebuild the hospital, Suttle said.

 

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