A stained glass window depicting Jesus Christ with outstretched hands watches over members of Smithville Baptist Church during an outdoor worship service Sunday in Smithville. Photo by: Carmen K. Sisson
May 2, 2011 10:49:00 AM
The post office is gone. The school is gone. City Hall is gone. Most of the churches are gone. Nearly every building in Smithville is gone -- or so heavily damaged they will have to be demolished. The devastation from last week''s EF5 tornado is so widespread, so absolute, that it''s easier to tally what remains: The telephone company. Coker''s Han-D-Mart. An unshakeable sense of faith. And hundreds of neighbors from Lowndes County and surrounding areas who stand ready to help the storm-ravaged town.
Sunday morning, amid the droning of chainsaws, an estimated 500 people gathered beneath a tent in front of the ruins of Smithville Baptist Church, where they laughed, cried, shared stories of survival and mourned their dead. Even as parishioners praised God and remembered the 15 people who perished, search and rescue teams continued combing the fields, looking for the 14 who remain missing.
A hearse slipped silently down Highway 25. American flags waved against an overcast sky. A sign in the window of Brown''s Martial Arts stated: "God Bless Smithville." Words scrawled on the side of a damaged home said: "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
At a half a mile wide, with wind speeds topping 205 miles per hour, it''s a miracle anyone made it through the tornado, residents say. It was the worst twister Mississippi has seen since 1966, yet within the three-mile path of destruction it left behind -- more than 200 homes and 20 businesses destroyed -- most of Smithville''s 900 residents survived.
Pastor Wes White choked back tears as he recalled lying in bed that night, asking the question everyone here is asking: "Why am I alive?"
At a time when the entire South is hurting, struggling to comprehend a storm system that spawned long-track tornadoes across six states, took 342 lives, and injured thousands, it is a question with no easy answers. In Mississippi, 35 people died. Approximately 2,527 homes were damaged and 883 homes were destroyed. Monroe County was hit particularly hard.
"A lady asked if this was the end of Smithville," White said. "I told her, ''You don''t understand Smithville. We''re not going anywhere. This is our home. And faith is the vehicle in which we travel.''"
White called the tornado a "resurrection moment" for the town, saying he hopes the spirit of the people will serve as a beacon of hope for a devastated region. Likewise, residents from Lowndes and surrounding counties have served as a beacon of hope for them.
Both the Columbus Regional Response Team and the Columbus Air Force Base Fire Department were on hand last week, providing support and assistance. Students at Heritage Academy are gathering toiletries, baby items and cleaning supplies. Mississippi State University students have been working in both Smithville and Tuscaloosa, Ala., cleaning up, distributing supplies and helping.
White said though his church is gone, he still feels blessed.
"God''s going to provide our needs," he said Sunday afternoon. "Our faith in Christ is going to carry us through."
Susan Gregersen, with Mississippi Volunteer Services, said people are needed immediately to assist with debris cleanup. Heavy equipment is also needed. If you''d like to volunteer, please call Gregersen at 601-214-9653. Water and other supplies are also welcome at the storm distribution center on Highway 25 behind Piggly Wiggly.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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