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Smithville’s Rise from Rubble Slow

By Sandra Knispel | Published 30 Apr 2012 10:10pm | comments
Allen Duncan and his wife Leigh, who have owned Smithville Hardware for more than two decades, have been selling out of their storage shed since the tornado hit 12 months ago. They are currently in the process of rebuilding their business.

Smithville is rising slowly from the rubble after last year’s deadly tornado. But as MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, the small northeast Mississippi town is still far from normalcy.

“That’s where a lot of roof damage came in and that’s been fixed. The Dollar General was completely wiped out. They came back very, very soon after the tornado,” says Michelle Bond.

Driving around Smithville a year later, recovery isn’t as fast as many had hoped. Researchers from Kansas State University found that people’s responses and emotions are so similar, regardless of the details and location of a large-scale disaster that they have broken down the recovery process into four distinct stages.

“The first stage is the ‘Heroic stage’ and that’s that initial right after the disaster when you’re pulling out people and you’re doing that immediate search and rescue.”

Michelle Bond is the disaster recovery manager for Smithville that was nearly obliterated 12 months ago by an EF-5 tornado that killed 16 and destroyed hundreds of homes.

“Then you go into the 'Honeymoon' stage where you are realizing what a miracle it is that you survived," Bond explains.

Smithville, she says, is currently stuck in the rut of stage three -- that is "Disillusionment."

“And that’s the stage where you are struggling to make sense of things. Where things are not happening as quickly as you want.

According to the scientists it’ll get better in stage four – the "Reconstruction" stage. But even Mayor Gregg Kennedy admits he had to learn a few new tricks.

“I have to tell you right now, I was not a patient man," Kennedy admits. "But I have learned to be very patient. It took some time and since the tornado I have learnt that patience is a virtue and I’ve learnt to calm it down.”

While the Smithville Baptist Church is already well underway to building an even bigger church than before, large swaths of the small town near the Alabama border remain empty. Where once large trees had obscured the view, the big void is now all encompassing, somewhat depressing: Fields with wild flowers where town hall, the post office, the local Piggly Wiggly, family homes and trailers had been. Of the 14 destroyed businesses only six have returned. Now, it’s always windy in the largely empty center of town.

“I had a two-story brick building and the top store floor got hit by some debris and knocked it down and crashed it and knocked it into the bottom floor and caused all the damage," says Duncan.

Allen Duncan and his wife Leigh have owned Smithville Hardware for over two decades. The store has been here since 1922 and is currently being rebuilt.

Reporter: “Smithville is still so far away from normalcy, isn’t it?” Duncan: “Oh yeah. I don’t imagine in my day and time I’ll ever see it back to what it was, because too many people have moved outside. The onlything  [that] could help us is manufacturing jobs.”

The community of originally 900 has been hemorrhaging citizens. How many exactly have left nobody knows. Mayor Kennedy bases his estimate on the number of active water meters.

“I’d say we’re in the neighborhood of 550 to 600 right now.”

Of those who stayed, many are still struggling psychologically, some experiencing the same symptoms as soldiers who return from war zones with post-traumatic stress disorder. Twenty-year-old William West, a store clerk, bears physical scars that run across his skull, clearly visible beneath his crew cut. He was literally sucked up by the tornado when it obliterated his home.

“It hit and I saw it hit until it took the house completely and I blacked out. I woke up – I’d say about thirty minutes, I don’t know how long it was after it had gone -- in a field,” West recalls. Reporter: “How far was that field away from the house?” “About a mile or more,” West replies.

While his broken collarbone, the cuts on his hands, back, feet and scalp have healed, his psychological injuries run deep.

Reporter: “Now a year later, are you fully recovered?” “Physically? Yes,” replies West. “But mentally and emotionally? No.”

But playing fields for softball, baseball and football have either been repaired or newly built. And that’s something that’s been lifting the town’s morale.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Smithville.



Allen Duncan and his wife Leigh, who have owned Smithville Hardware for more than two decades, have been selling out of their storage shed since the tornado hit 12 months ago. They are currently in the process of rebuilding their business.



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