Most debris cleared 3 months after Miss. tornado

Published 11:23 pm Saturday, July 24, 2010

Three months after a monster tornado plowed nearly 150 miles through Mississippi, survivors are rebuilding homes and businesses, and officials say most of the debris has been cleared.

In one of the hardest hit areas of Yazoo City, many businesses damaged in the April 24 storm were repaired and reopened.

Contractors installed new power lines this past week, and volunteers from an Iowa church group helped repair houses.

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Angie Cotten Rhoads was once again cutting hair and offering indoor tanning at Just My Style, a salon just off U.S. Highway 49 in Yazoo City — the place she huddled with eight other adults and nine children as the midday tornado ripped off the roof and exploded the windows.

Rhoads, a single mother with three teenage girls, said she’s living in a camper in the driveway of her log cabin and is plenty miffed about dealing with government bureaucracy.

“This late in the game, a lot of people are tired. They’re just tired,” Rhoads said during a cigarette break before cutting a man’s hair.

She said has more than $60,000 of damage to her home and is appealing a $2,400 repair payment she received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The spring tornado bumped down in Louisiana before skipping across the Mississippi River.

Once it was in Mississippi, it bulldozed homes near Eagle Lake in Warren County, slammed into Yazoo City and cut a swath of destruction through churches, homes and businesses in several counties as it moved through the central and northern parts of the state. The system pushed into Alabama, spawning more tornadoes.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was 1.75 miles wide in some places in Mississippi — a record for the state.

It killed four people in Yazoo County, one in Holmes County and five in Choctaw County. Two people were killed in Alabama.

Brent McKnight, emergency management director in northern Mississippi’s Choctaw County, said some locals have become understandably skittish about bad weather since the storm.

“There’s a few of them, when it rains they flinch. Others are just like, ’It’s going to get me one way or the other,”’ McKnight said.

He said about 15 families are living in FEMA trailers set up in a recreational vehicle park in Choctaw County. About a dozen other families have moved into MEMA cottages — shotgun-style manufactured homes built to withstand strong winds.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it has cleared nearly 69.1 million tons of tornado debris from five counties.

Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA awarded nearly $3.3 million in individual assistance. Flynn said 849 applications for the aid were submitted.

The Small Business Administration made nearly $2.4 million in loans, most of it for home repairs, Flynn said.

Some parts of Yazoo City are still disrupted. The state Medicaid office still has a torn awning, and contractors were parked outside the building last week. A sign on the glass door said Medicaid has moved to a temporary office in another part of town.

Twenty-two teenagers and adults from the St. Pious X youth ministry disaster relief team in Urbandale, Iowa, helped rebuild homes in Yazoo City, and grateful residents served them barbecued venison and homemade biscuits and gravy.

Barb Mease, who led the group, said the volunteers had worked on tornado recovery in Iowa the past two summers and “we decided it was time to help somebody else.” The group worked on tornado recovery in northern Mississippi in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina recovery in the state in 2006.

Mease said helping others is a life-changing experience for the teens.

“They learn things they never dreamed they could do. It makes them feel so powerful and confident,” she said. “A lot of them come here and they’ve never even swung a hammer before.”

At El Sombrero Mexican Grill and Cantina on U.S. 49 in Yazoo City, a few customers enjoyed mid-afternoon margaritas under a new ceiling. The tornado yanked away part of the restaurant’s roof and ceiling. Owner Francisco Diaz said El Sombrero went without electricity four or five days, and work crews repaired the roof in about three weeks.

Diaz’ sister, 22-year-old Fatima Diaz, said the doors of the restaurant blew out but nobody was hurt. She was at her home a few miles away when the storm hit, and her part of town only had minor damage.

“It was my first tornado and I don’t want one more, I tell you,” Fatima Diaz said.

Frank Cowan, a 59-year-old auto mechanic who works near El Sombrero, walked to a nearby convenience store last week to grab a cold drink. He said he was with relatives in rural Yazoo County when the tornado struck, and his 3-year-old granddaughter cries during storms now.

“It just came so quick,” Cowan recalled. “It just twisted trees, tore up my brother’s truck. It was screaming. I ain’t never heard nothing like it.”