LOUISVILLE — Six months after a devastating tornado, Winston County’s hospital is still operating out of tents and shipping containers, home rebuilding is sputtering along and it may be another year before a new plywood mill opens.
Still, leaders in Louisville say they’re optimistic about rebounding from April 28’s devastating tornado, which killed 10 people in Winston County. They hope the recovery process will yield a stronger community, a modernized hospital and more robust economy.
“We have an opportunity to do in the next two to three years what would normally take 10 years,” said Louisville Mayor Will Hill.
The scars are healing, but a thunderstorm can still spark community-wide anxiety. Selose McDonald said her 25-year-old son Bubba, thrown from the family mobile home and injured in the storm, wakes up screaming from nightmares.
“When a heavy rain comes or bad weather comes, he just watches the trees and starts shaking,” said McDonald.
Twenty-three tornadoes raked Mississippi on April 28. The 185 mph monster that tore diagonally across Winston County was the most powerful, destroying 391 buildings — more than half of buildings destroyed statewide.
The county’s 19,000 residents were already grappling with a depressed economy and dwindling population. The storm created new problems: an unusable hospital and nursing home, wrecked factories and hundreds of homeless residents.
Earlier this month, the percussive “thunk” of a nail gun sounded on Louisville’s Beal Avenue as Mennonite volunteers from Indiana rebuilt a home.
Up the hill, Walter Thomas sat in one of 25 FEMA house trailers distributed after the storm, waiting his turn for assistance. On April 28, Thomas ended up under a door as his house collapsed, and then helped a neighbor dig out her two children.
“I think I’ll come out all right,” Thomas said. “The only fear I have is, will it come back again?”
Thomas and McDonald are being helped by Winston Strong, a local storm-recovery charity that has raised more than $400,000 so far and disbursed more than $280,000. Case management coordinator Mellie Jordan said new applicants are still coming in, as residents settle with insurance companies and conclude they lack sufficient money to rebuild.
McDonald, a casino worker, had no insurance. She said she got enough money from FEMA to buy a new trailer, while Winston Strong provided money for a new septic tank and appliances. Some in her rural Center Ridge neighborhood south of Louisville won’t rebuild.
“Some of them said they’re scared to come back,” McDonald said.
Yet this fall’s school enrollment suggests few have left the county, despite fears of an exodus.
“I am not aware of any great migration that’s taken place,” said Republican state Sen. Giles Ward, whose house was destroyed. He moved across town, out of his senatorial district, meaning he’ll leave the Legislature after 2014.
Permanent recovery may be slowest at Winston Medical Center. At the mobile disaster hospital deployed from North Carolina, patients go outside to use the toilet or shower and don’t have private rooms. Some parts were used in a military hospital in Afghanistan.
“Admittedly, it looks like a MASH unit, but we use the tagline ‘It’s what’s on the inside that counts,'” administrator Paul Black said.
With winter coming and an expected three-year wait before a new hospital opens, Black is making plans for “a more permanent temporary facility,” using modular buildings.
Leaders plan to restore X-rays, CT scans, and mammograms, plus a senior care unit in the modular facility, helping recover lost revenue.
The hospital’s nursing home reopened Oct. 1 and will have 74 patients back by late November, compared to 114 pre-storm beds. Before the tornado, Winston Medical Center employed the equivalent of 205 full-time employees. By late November, the hospital expects 148.
Black said a new hospital could cost $35 million to $40 million.
Another major employer, a plywood mill, was within weeks of hiring workers when the tornado hit. Oregon-based Natron Wood Products has pledged to build a larger, more efficient mill that will hire 400 people. Gerald Mills, executive director of the Winston County Economic Development Partnership, said the plant could cost around $80 million, including $10 million in city insurance proceeds, $34.5 million in FEMA money announced Oct. 22 and company money.
The mayor said recovery is a slog, but it’s yielding rewards.
“I think we’re going to have a stronger community,” Hill said.
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