From staff and wire reports
As the state’s death toll from a violent series of storms that rumbled across the South on Wednesday grew to 33, area officials sought to aid those impacted by the storm and take steps toward normalcy.
Webster County was officially declared a disaster area, following a tornado that hit the area around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Gov. Haley Barbour made the declaration Thursday as work crews continue to clean trees and debris from the area.
Statewide, the Monroe County town of Smithville was hardest hit with 14 deaths. In addition to those deaths and 40 reported injuries in Monroe County, authorities reported four deaths and 30 injuries in Clarke County; three deaths each in Chickasaw and Kemper counties; two deaths in Jasper County; and one death each in Choctaw, Lafayette, Marshall, Pike, Smith, Webster and Yazoo counties. One person was killed Tuesday in Pike County.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said more than 120 people were injured. Damage was reported in 52 counties across the state.
While many are claiming the Webster County tornado to be a F4 tornado, Jimmy Forrester, public information officer for Webster County Emergency Management, said the category of tornado will be determined by the National Weather Service, who are expected to be in the area within the next three to four days.
Forrester also said electric crews from 4-County Electric Association estimate an additional three to five days before all electricity will be restored to areas damaged in the Webster County area. Forrester warned this is a preliminary estimate.
New damage assessments show the 4-County Electric Association lost 193 poles due to the storms, and that number is expected to rise. Officials said most of those poles were lost in the Montpelier area of Clay county and Cumberland in Webster county.
4-County estimates between 350 and 400 homes in Webster County are affected.
Natchez Trace Electric did not release estimates at press time.
Webster County Emergency Management sent representatives door-to-door in the communities hit by Wednesday’s tornado. Forrester said the teams reported no major medical problems and no missing persons in Webster County.
Damage assessment crews will make their final reports today, and will report their findings to the Mississippi Emergency Management Association. Forrester estimated three to four days before MEMA will release their assessment of the storm damages in Webster County.
Mathiston First Baptist Church has been set up as Webster County Emergency Management’s approved temporary shelter for residents who have been displaced due to the tornado. The shelter is located at 24901 Miss. Hwy. 15 in Mathiston. The pastor is Wade Stevens and can be reached at (662) 263-5323 or (662) 263-7770.
First Baptist Church in Cumberland is working to feed workers and residents who are without power. The church is serving lunch and dinner.
Webster County Emergency Management will also set up two points of distribution next week, with locations to be determined at a later time. They are not accepting clothing. They will be distributing water and ready-to-eat meals. They will also set up an opportunity for people to donate to help tornado victims.
The storms also left wide swaths of destruction in Kemper and Clarke counties in east central Mississippi, near the Alabama line.
Thousands of structures are damaged across the state. Barbour said Thursday he’s asking President Barack Obama for a federal disaster declaration all of Mississippi.
Barbour said state and local emergency agencies continue assessing damage in many counties, and National Guard troops are on duty in Smithville.
In Alabama, tornadoes ripped through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, but Mississippi’s larger population centers were not hit. At a news conference in Jackson, Barbour said he’s concerned about the deaths, injuries and damage in Mississippi.
“We are blessed in the fact that it could’ve been a lot worse,” Barbour said.
Smithville was in ruins. Pieces of tin were wrapped high around the legs of a blue water tower. The Piggly Wiggly grocery store was gutted, with wires and insulation dangling from the ceiling. In one part of town, not a structure was left standing as far as the eye could see.
The police station, the post office, city hall and an industrial park with several furniture manufacturing facilities were among the dozens of structures ripped apart. Neighborhoods resembled the Mississippi coast after Hurricane Katrina.
White said a group of residents from a nearby trailer park knocked on the Smithville Baptist Church door just before the storm hit, asking for shelter. They went to a sturdy section of the red brick church where they hung onto one another and anything they could grab “like a mass of humanity” as the building disintegrated, he said.
The red Jeep Wrangler that some of mobile home residents drove to the church was left on its side inside the church office. The second story was gone. Walls were collapsed. Entire sections of the church were flattened, but the choir robes remained in place.
“Our choir robes are OK,” the pastor shouted Thursday when he saw them. “They’re perfectly white.”
Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Ray Hall said search and rescue missions could continue most Thursday in Smithville. Cars and structures were painted with orange symbols to mark the ones that had already been searched and the ones where bodies were found.
Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said another potential complication is the fickle nature of power grids.
Clarke County Sheriff Todd Kemp told The Meridian Star that the tornado left destruction from the west end of the county to the Alabama state line. Four people were killed when the storm destroyed a large mobile home where 19 nearby residents sought shelter. Ten were injured.
Tony Fleming, president of the Clarke County board of supervisors, said it might take a week to assess damage.
“’We’re in a rural area but we’ve got some towns and it went right through those,” Fleming said.
In Kemper County, sisters Florrie Green and Maxine McDonald, and their sister-in-law Johnnie Green, all died in a mobile home that was destroyed by a storm. All were in their 80s.
“They were thrown into those pines over there,” Mary Green, Johnnie Green’s daughter-in-law, said, pointing to a wooded area. “They had to go look for their bodies.”
On Thursday, 58-year-old Smithville resident Kenny Long and his brother Paul dragged the headstone of their youngest brother back to its perch in Smithville Cemetery.
The headstones of Kenny Long’s daughter and granddaughter had also pulled from their resting sites not far from a massive magnolia tree that was stripped of branches and leaves. The cemetery was littered with debris and pieces of houses from a nearby neighborhood.
Tombstones dating back to the 1800s, including some of Civil War soldiers, lay broken on the ground. His relatives’ tombstones remained intact.
“Think of the people that don’t live in Smithville. They don’t even know their families’ headstones are gone,” Kenny Long said.
Long said he works at the post office and was allowed to go home when forecasters predicted severe weather. He knew the storm was coming, so he hunkered down. His house was damaged, but not leveled like many of his neighbors’ homes.
Smithville has no storm shelter. Long said other nearby communities have at least one community storm shelter. In an era when technology gives advance warning of approaching storms, it makes no sense that people have nowhere to go even when they know they’re in danger, Long said.
“You have warnings, but where do you go?” he asked.
White, the pastor of Smithville Baptist, said the church plans to have a service in a tent Sunday with a sermon themed “Resurrection in life.”
Gwen Sisson contributed to this story.