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Smithville Remembers Dead One Year After Tornado

By Sandra Knispel | Published 30 Apr 2012 07:18am | comments
Smithville residents release one lantern for each of the 16 killed in last year's tornado at the town's one-year remembrance ceremony on Saturday.

It was an emotional day of remembrance in Smithville, one year after an EF-5 tornado ravaged the small town in northeast Mississippi, killing 16. MPB’s Sandra Knispel was at Saturday’s ceremony and filed this report.

[Nat sound of reading out aloud names of deceased]

For each deceased, town officials release a brightly colored lantern into the blue sky, carried aloft by a helium balloon inside.

[more nat sound]

It’s a small town where everybody knows everyone’s name and Smithville Mayor Gregg Kennedy’s remembrance is personal, his voice quivering.

“You could come in on the south end of town and see the beautiful roses in Ms Jackson’s yard. As my first job as a teenager I drove a green John Deere tractor for Mr Jesse Cox.”

Most have come in t-shirts with slogans such as, “We will rebuild,” or, “I love Smithville, Mississippi." Maroon shirts are everywhere – the color of the Smithville schools and the town’s firefighters.

“One year ago, Smithville witnessed the most devastating event in its history. The massive tornado that hit our town changed the face of Smithville forever,” Kennedy recalls.

Alderman Jimmy Dabbs remembers the scene right as the tornado struck.

“It was a half mile wide, and on the ground for more than three miles. Folks sought refuge in bathtubs and closets, grocery store freezers and bank vaults, storm shelters. We huddled together and prayed for safety. Within seconds, the town that had taken about 200 years to build was gone.”

Sitting on a trailer bed that doubles as a makeshift stage at the empty site where the new government complex will one day be built, dignitaries, including the Governor, the First Lady and First District U.S. Congressman Alan Nunnelee have all come to pay their respects. Nunnelee tells the crowd of several hundred to remain steadfast.

“That we will move forward. That that tornado that came in and took lives, that damaged property, did not destroy the spirit of Smithville!” [applause]

In the audience, beaming, shaking hands, is the always optimistic pastor of the largest congregation in town, Wes White. The two-story Baptist church, with him and others inside, was destroyed, but he does not dwell on that.

“We’re in the process of rebuilding. We’re very, very fortunate and blessed. I’d say our churches have done as good a job as any at the rebuilding process. Every church that was damaged is either in a reconstruction mode or is already finished by now.”

The small town of once 900 has now dwindled by at least a third. Yet, White’s new church building is going to be bigger than the old one. How many eventually return to Smithville depends also on the community’s ability to attract new businesses.  For many, meanwhile, recovery has taken on a deeper, religious meaning, among them Mayor Kennedy…

 “Today we celebrate also the resurrection of Smithville, Mississippi [applause] and we’ll keep on celebrating every time a new business opens, a new baby is born.”

And because rebuilding takes more than patience, sweat, faith and resolve, Governor Phil Bryant has brought along something useful.

“We prayed about this and while we were praying we decided the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] could write a check. So, mayor, if you want to come up here, I’ve got a check to help you pay for your debris removal and that portion of the match of  $13,732.16 and we’re not done yet [applause].”

Moving forward, the town is working on plans for a permanent memorial for those 16 killed in the afternoon of April 27th of last year.

[more nat sound reading of names]

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Smithville.



Smithville residents release one lantern for each of the 16 killed in last year's tornado at the town's one-year remembrance ceremony on Saturday.



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