Around mid-afternoon on April 27, 2011, Gregg Kennedy, part-time mayor of Smithville, Miss., completed his shift at his full-time job at the True Temper Sports golf club shaft manufacturing facility in nearby Amory. He drove straight to the Smithville Town Hall because of the threatening weather.
When the sirens went off a second time at around 3:30, he says, "I knew this one was bad. Immediately I told the two clerks to put up the register money in the vault, and I sent them to the boardroom. We planned years back that under the boardroom executive table would be our safe spot."
When the power went off at 3:46, he peeked outside in time to see a utility trailer flying across the highway. The town hall was coming apart as he dove back under the table. Ten seconds later, "the only thing left in our whole city hall was that table and us three under it."
Seconds after that, the part-time mayor faced the full-time challenge of his life, as he dealt with the deaths of 16 residents, and the damage to or obliteration of 202 homes, the high school, two churches and 21 businesses caused by the nation's first EF-5 tornado in three years. (It wasn't much later in the day before more EF-5s were striking such places as Hackleburg and Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
"When I crawled out, I seen everything was gone," says Kennedy. "I couldn't hold my emotions back, and cried like a baby, because I've been here all my life. It took me several days to get over the shock of it being gone."
One year later, as the town prepares to hold its first Smithville Memorial Day on Saturday, the shock still lingers. But it's tempered by steely resolve, incremental recovery and infrastructure plans that, perversely, were aided by the twister's path.
"The Highway 25 project was originally drawn up to bypass our town," says Kennedy. In part, that was because taking a bulldozer to the right-of-ways in town would have taken the Mississippi Dept. of Transportation right through living rooms of houses built unknowingly on state property decades ago.
Tragically, the tornado did the clearing for them.
"The DOT came in after the tornado and marked the right-of-ways," says Kennedy. "People knew where the line was, and to back off of it, leaving a green space between highway land and whatever they were building."
Meanwhile in the state capital of Jackson, the law was reinterpreted to allow MDOT the authority to reconsider bringing a five-lane highway through the middle of town. Today, all that remains to endure is the environmental permitting process.
"We're going to be the only town between Iuka and Jackson that Highway 25 is going to go through," says Kennedy, noting that the town is only 12 miles away from the future I-22 corridor. "It's major for economic development. We don't care if it's 20 years from now before it hooks up, as long as we know we can build to it."
A Demolition Education, For Education's Sake
The highway is just one element in the community's recovery planning, led by Kennedy over an exhausting year of work, meetings and more meetings. In fact, they've just cut back the meetings from weekly to monthly, so more of the actions decided upon at them can be implemented. Kennedy took a six-month leave from his True Temper job, but that ended Oct. 10. "That's the reason it's so hectic," he says. "My time's been scarce here lately."
But the chief scarcity in town today is a grocery store. The owners of the main store in town, a Piggly Wiggly, have decided to cut their losses and invest in their three other stores in nearby towns. So Smithville residents need to drive 11 miles to Amory or 14 miles to Fulton to do their shopping. Kennedy says the owners aren't selling, so they can look again at the situation.
Some might say the reluctance stems from the slow rebuilding by the town's major employer, Townhouse Home Furnishings. But he thinks there's another reason: the delayed demolition and rebuilding of the town's school.
"We're battling through the Section 106 process," says Kennedy of the section of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requiring extensive environmental and historical review of any planned demolition of buildings over 50 years old. "I have no doubt in my mind that if we could bring in a bulldozer and start leveling those buildings, that would change the whole scope of everything, because the general public and investors who want to fund a grocery store are basing their decision on whether that school is torn down or patched up."
Renovation would cost $2.3 million more than demolition and rebuilding. So demolition, even with the headaches involved with Section 106, was the chosen path. Kennedy says most of the consultation is complete, from Jackson to D.C. All that remains is to satisfy the requirements of the Native American Act, which will require a sign-off from the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Once that's done, says Kennedy, "We're looking for a bulldozer up on that campus by the first of June."
Smithville's experience is a direct parallel with that of Hackleburg, just to the east, from the population size (under 1,000) to the grocery store (Hackleburg's Piggly Wiggly has rebuilt) to the eerily clean leftover building slabs and the destroyed hardware stores at the center of both towns, their fragmented brick facades still standing like puzzle pieces by the sidewalk.
Leaders of both towns have looked to a third town — Greensburg, Kan. — for a model. That's where an EF-5 struck in 2007. Today it has more LEED-Platinum buildings than any town in the nation — including the school. Kennedy and his assistant in charge of recovery, Michelle Bond, visited Greensburg last fall.
"As soon as I got there I said 'Wow, I'm looking in the mirror," says Kennedy, noting Greensburg's own highway issues. He was impressed most of all with how leaders got the whole community involved. "They brought in some outside resources through FEMA, but the actual townspeople made the decisions, and that's what I brought back to our town." And one more thing: "Nothing was built there until they made plans to build that new school," he says. "I feel very confident that's what's going to happen here."
Also making the trip to Greensburg was a contingent from among 27 architecture students at Mississippi State University's Carl Small Town Institute, part of the university's school of architecture. They spent their fall semester developing community planning and design strategies for rebuilding, and presented their ideas to town leaders in December. Sustainability was a major theme, says Small Town Institute Director John Poros, drawing directly from Greensburg's example.
"They have some business incubators, and because they're taking the lead in terms of sustainability, they have people looking to move in and further that success," he says of Greensburg. The Kansas town "is in a little different situation because it's basically agricultural and very little else," says Poros. That said, "What's important in Greensburg is their school. They're attracting students from all over — in some ways it's an economic engine."
The Waterway and the Web
The MSU team also took a hard look at more traditional economic assets in Smithville. Poros notes an existing railway spur, as well as the future highway. But there are a couple other highways that may prove fruitful too, while contributing to preservation of small-town ambiance — something the MSU students prioritized.
"The piece of the picture that hasn't been well integrated yet is the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway being close by," says Poros. "We tried to make more of it in terms of recreation. As an asset, it's something that's been a bit overlooked in the past in Smithville."
Kennedy says the townspeople miss having the students around since they decamped in December. He says that while some of those college students' ideas were "way out there," some are being implemented. Consultants in Jackson already are making headway on the property abutting the Tenn-Tom. He says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the undeveloped property, and that it may make the most sense to proceed with "the possibility of a 99-year lease rather than doing a land swap or something like that." The parcel adjoins city-owned property now home to amenities such as Little League ballfields. Once work commences, he says, "The whole north side of town that joins the lake to the Tenn-Tom will be enhanced."
In addition to the waterway, there's an information highway that's about to receive an upgrade, says Kennedy. Thanks to a $7.9-million grant from the American Reinvestment and Recovery act (ARRA), the independently owned Smithville Telephone Co. will be installing broadband infrastructure extending to 10 miles outside the city limits in every direction.
"Very few towns in rural Mississippi have broadband," says Kennedy, noting the advantages for attracting call centers or data centers. In addition to industrial park plans already under way, town leaders are studying designating some land specifically to take advantage of the broadband opportunity. "They got the grant about a year ago, right after the tornado," says the mayor. "Right now the fiber-optic is going in the ground."
Meanwhile, the delayed comeback of Townhouse, which employed 175 before the storm, may finally be getting up some steam. The company has lined up assistance from the Mississippi Development Authority, the Appalachian Regional Council and CDBG funds to sustain its employment base at other nearby locations while also rebuilding.
"We appreciate all of the thoughts and prayers for our Townhouse employees and the residents of Smithville in the wake of the recent storms," said Tony Watson, CFO of Townhouse, last May. "Due to the damage sustained at the Smithville plant, we are moving production to the new Mantachie plant. However, we are committed to Smithville and will rebuild the plant there. The demand for our Townhouse product will allow us to continue operations at the Mantachie location and rebuild the Smithville plant in the future."
Kennedy says the company just last weekend began to do the wiring for new machinery at the site, offering their employees overtime to do it on the weekend so as not to disrupt other company operations in Amory and in Mantachie, 35 miles away in Itawamba County.
"It's my understanding right now that May 5, they're going to start moving machinery into the facility," says Kennedy. "They want to start out with roughly 60 employees, and gradually build it up."
Monroe County as a whole seems to be holding its own. According to the Monroe Chamber of Commerce's most recent newsletter, over the 30 months ending in October 2011, the chamber assisted eight industries with the creation of 603 new jobs, and secured grant funds for the projects totaling over $4.1 million. Ten projects have yielded capital investments totaling $211 million, 1,258 jobs retained, and five once-vacant industrial buildings now occupied. Among them is an expansion by Kennedy's employer True Temper, adding 20 positions to a payroll of 320. Others have come from Holley Performance, Georgia Gulf, Birdsong Peanuts, Madison House Furniture and Homestretch Furniture.
Best Yet to Come
Small businesses in Smithville are popping back one by one. The Dollar General store was obliterated by the twister, but opened back up in August. (Hackleburg's Dollar General reopened too.) Mel's Diner is back, as are the Texaco station and Renasant Bank. Another business, Pete's Tasty Bar-B-Q, started out of a food truck from Fulton last August, and according to the local press, plans to stay around in a more permanent structure.
Many of those businesses were helped by U.S. Small Business Administration loans.
"Right after the tornado, I got all the business owners underneath the shed at what was left of the Piggly Wiggly," says Kennedy. "I introduced Matthew Young from the Atlanta office of the SBA and I stepped out of the way. When the FEMA individual assistance team came in, and we set up the Disaster Recovery Center [housed temporarily in a Townhouse Home Furnishings warehouse], we put an SBA office in there too. It's none of my business who got loans, but I know SBA was a big help to us."
Next month, Kennedy will be traveling to Washington, D.C., to receive the U.S. Small Business Administration's Phoenix Award for his outstanding contribution to disaster recovery in his role as a public official.
"The Phoenix Award is an acknowledgment of an individual's heroic work and a recognition of the contributions they make to the recovery of their communities," said SBA Administrator Karen G. Mills on April 13 when the news was announced. "Mayor Gregg Kennedy displayed tremendous courage and resourcefulness in the aftermath of the tornado, and he exemplifies the spirit one must have to rebuild after a disaster like this."
"It's not me, it's the whole town," says Kennedy. "We're going to make some changes for 50 years from now. My grandkids are going to see the effects of it."
CAPTION: Atlanta Falcons tight end Reggie Kelly, a native of Aberdeen, Miss., who attended Mississippi State University, meets with Gregg Kennedy, mayor of Smithville, Miss., last summer to boost morale and draw attention to continuing recovery efforts by FEMA and its federal, state, local and private-sector partners.
A rapid rebuilding effort allowed the Smithville High School Seminoles to play on their home field last fall, beginning with a close 7-6 loss to their rivals the Hatley Tigers. "We rebuilt that field first thing," says Kennedy. "Our superintendent and I knew that that first football game would be the best healing process, because around here everybody goes to high school football."