Tornado-ravaged Miss. town reaches milestones

Published 1:57 pm Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The north Mississippi town of Smithville celebrated emotional milestones Monday as children returned to school and authorities said they accounted for all the people who’d been considered missing since a tornado ravaged the community last week.

A body was found Saturday in Smithville and authorities said the other missing people are alive. Greg Flynn, a spokesman with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Monday that the development in Smithville means all missing people in Mississippi have been located.

Smithville officials praised the positive developments as proof the town of about 900 will survive the deadly tornado that destroyed its only major grocery store, city hall, the police department, the post office and numerous homes and businesses. Smithville officials said the tornado was a half-mile wide, had winds topping 205 mph and was on the ground in the area for nearly three miles.

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Full recovery could take years, and reminders of loss are everywhere. There were funerals Monday in a damaged cemetery and most of the town is littered with debris.

“Closure has started,” said Longtime Smithville Alderman Jimmy Dabbs. “We’ll be back bigger, stronger and better than before but it’s going to take time.”

Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Brian Mobley said everyone missing from Smithville and the county it’s located in, Monroe, have been accounted for. He said search-and-rescue operations are over. Now officials can concentrate on cleaning up. Getting children back in the classroom gives them a sense of normalcy, even if they are in new schools. Dabbs said the Smithville children will finish the year in other facilities in the district.

Authorities said last week’s storms killed 35 people in Mississippi, 15 in Monroe County alone.

Dabbs said other communities are helping out the hardest hit areas like Smithville. The city of Fulton gave Smithville a police car to help shore up its destroyed fleet.

“They handed me that title and I just wanted to get on my hands and knees and go crying,“ Dabbs said. ”The support is overwhelming.“

Dabbs said recovery is just beginning. The town’s maintenance department lost its trucks so officials are hoping someone will give them at least two pickup trucks. The town also is asking for duct tape, sports drinks, work gloves, baby wipes, permanent markers, school supplies, laundry detergent, tarps, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, paper napkins, sunscreen, large garbage bags, sugar-free juices, bath towels and cloths.

Flynn, the MEMA spokesman, said removing debris and finding housing for storm victims are the biggest challenges ahead. Eleven Mississippi counties have been declared disasters areas by the federal government — Chickasaw, Choctaw, Clarke, Greene, Hinds, Jasper, Kemper, Neshoba, Lafayette, Monroe and Webster.

Flynn said officials are still doing damage assessments in other counties and its possible the state could request the federal government to include those in a disaster declaration, which frees up resources.

Gov. Haley Barbour said Monday that state and federal officials have set up a mobile disaster recovery centers in Smithville and storm victims can go there to apply for aid.