While other tornado-ravaged cities are getting more attention, the residents of a small town in Mississippi are showing the world that after death and destruction, faith can move mountains.
Smithville, Miss., has a population of just under 1,000 but in this neck of the woods there is a strong sense of community and an unmovable trust in God.
Since the deadly EF5 tornado hit the small town on April 27, the uncanny weather plaguing cities across the globe seems to be intensifying, according to the National Weather Service.
Relentless rainfall, devastating flood waters submerging towns along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, tsunamis, earthquakes, and an unprecedented number of intense tornadoes are hitting the news wires every day.
In April, nearly 900 tornadoes tore through the region – four times as many as usual and May brought even more deadly weather, according to environmentalist Steve Curwood.
“It does not matter where you are during an EF5 tornado because there is nowhere to go,” said Jeff Rent, an emergency management official.
“Those tornadoes suck up the grass, concrete and anything in its path.”
Before the run of deadly tornadoes, the upper-midwest was hit by a near-record snow pack. When that melted, it sent the huge amount of floodwater down the Mississippi.
"This is all quite expected and due in part to a warmer atmosphere and climate change," according to meteorologist Jeff Masters.
Whatever the reason, some say this is the time for a true test in our faith in God.
“I do not know why there is so much devastation this year but there is a reason for everything,” said church volunteer Joye Cenasse from Jackson, Miss.
“God can do his best work in us if we rely on Him and do not try to second guess Him. He clearly says that we must have faith so He can meet our needs.”
Smithville Still Standing
The Smithville tornado was one of the first killer tornadoes to hit the U.S., killing at least 16 with peak winds estimated at 205 miles per hour.
The twister's path was 2.82 miles long and up to half a mile wide hurling bodies into nearby fields and flipping cars on top of each other, according to Monroe County Sheriff Andy Hood.
It was the first EF-5 tornado to hit the U.S. since 2008 and the first to hit Mississippi since 1966.
Today, one month after the tornado ripped through the town, debris is finally off of the streets but three-quarters of the town is gone. Half of the houses were demolished – splintered to bits or sunk in – and hundreds were badly damaged.
Since the Smithville storm there has been a slow migration of volunteers making their way to the cities and towns that need them most.
A typical day for John Wheeler, a California-based retired attorney, is spent riding in his truck, hauling his trailer packed with tools in route to the next storm ravaged city.
Whether it’s putting on a new roof, assisting with rescue efforts, patrolling neighborhoods in a grocery-filled pickup truck, or building a new house, Wheeler said helping tornado victims in splintered Southern towns or flood victims in the Mississippi Delta has given him hope.
“It seems like we are all just cleaning up an endless path of debris,” Wheeler said as he packs up his truck heading for Joplin, Mo.
“I have met so many people along the way but my biggest lesson was in Smithville, Mississippi.”
Wheeler said he carries the lessons he learned from Smithville to the other parts of the nation.
He considers himself a volunteer with a message.
“When I got there I was expecting some very sad faces because I heard their church was gone and most of the businesses were obliterated. It is a very small town without a lot of resources,” Wheeler said.
“I was met by smiling faces. It was a Sunday and the church members had just met under a tent for services. They were hugging, laughing and crying.”
The church had no building, many members had no insurance but there was no doubt. They would rebuild.
Since the devastating tornado, their faith has been as strong as the foundation upon which it was founded.
The members at Smithville Baptist Church called the Sunday after the storm, "Resurrection Sunday.”
Even as the crowd stood and worshipped next to a pile of twisted debris in one of the hardest hit towns in Mississippi, they bowed their head in prayers of thanksgiving and raised their arms in praise.
Church officials estimated that 400 to 500 residents attended the service, which was much larger than the usual Sunday crowd.
“It was so crowded that we could not all fit under the tent,” said Randy Quave, who attended the service.
“Everyone was just hugging each other because it was the first time we had seen each other all together since the tornado.”
Church pastor Wes White's message was one of hope.
"This is our resurrection Sunday, Lord, everything that was, will be new in you. Resurrect Smithville. Resurrect our homes. Resurrect our families," White said in his prayer at the service.
In the face of so much destruction, the message of faith and hope hit home for the church members.
They shared their message with Wheeler who has taken that prayerful attitude to every town he volunteers.
“This little town may only have 900 residents but it has a faith as big as the tallest mountain,” Wheeler said.
“It seemed like they all cared for others more than themselves. It really reminded me of Mayberry. They have a real faith in God and faith in themselves – even when the cameras are not rolling.”
Wheeler said the little town has a bold message from God. Have faith.
“I believe God sent me to Smithville first so that I can spread the hope of God wherever I go to help. That is just what I do,” he said.
“Where there is faith and a will to go on – there is a way.”
Some would have used the Smithville storm as a sign from God to give up their little church and their town, but not Byron Coker.
Coker owns a small neighborhood convenience store that was one of the buildings still standing in the midst of the destruction along U.S. Highway 25 in Smithville.
It is where most residents are getting their news, groceries and daily needs since the main market was destroyed.
Others are receiving food and supplies from the hundreds of volunteers who still remain in the town.
“With the post office and bank being destroyed, it has been a challenge to get our business back up and running,” said Coker, owner of the Coker Handy Mart in Smithville.
“We are all just trying to get back to normal. People from all over the United States have come here to help us build back. We could not do without them and we will make it. We have to; this is home.”
The Smithville cemetery was badly damaged by the tornado and grave markers were repaired and replaced to prepare for the multiple funerals being held the week after the storm.
A spokesperson for the E.E. Pickle Funeral Home in Smithville said their main focus was trying to be there for the families.
“It has been hard enough on everyone but we will get through all of this. We want to stay open and help the families cope,” said Margaret Toss at the funeral home.
Many residents have moved in with relatives and friends in neighboring towns and make daily trips into town to help others rebuild while their insurance or FEMA monies come through.
Tattered clothes fly from the broken trees, concrete slabs with toys are in the yard, and furniture scattered throughout the properties still remain. Although the recovery is slow, the residents in Smithville say they are not giving up on rebuilding their little town.
“We are supposed to learn something from it,” said Mary Ann Nabors, the owner of a business that was once the general store.. “It was considered ‘the Wal-Mart of Smithville,’” Nabors said. “Hardship happens to you. I did not know that all my life. When God sends you hardship, he is not taking something away. He is giving you something better.”
Jim Futral, executive director for the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board said people are now all too familiar with storms and disasters because of the tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and fires.
“This outbreak of bad weather with its rain, hail, tornadoes, and incredible straight line winds is the worst of all times,” Futral wrote in his May column.
“The storms have been everywhere in towns, cities, country sides, and forests. You cannot drive very far across our state without seeing some of the scars. The destruction has taken with it houses, businesses, schools, churches, camps, and precious human lives.”
He wrote now is a marvelous time and opportunity for people to care for one another.
John Wheeler, the traveling volunteer now on his way to his next stop in the mid-west, said Smithville will always be to him as “the little town that could.”
Did you know?
What were the top 10 deadliest U.S. tornadoes in the past?
1) March 18, 1925, Tri-State (Mo./Ill./Ind.), 695 deaths
2) May 6, 1840, Natches, Miss., 317 deaths
3) May 27, 1896, St. Louis, Mo., 255 deaths
4) April 5, 1936, Tupelo, Miss., 216 deaths
5) April 6, 1936, Gainesville, Ga., 203 deaths
6) April 9, 1947, Woodward, Okla., 181 deaths
7) April 24, 1908, Amite, La.,/Purvis, Miss., 143 deaths
8) May 22, 2011, Joplin, Mo., 124 deaths (pending final totals)
9) June 12, 1899, New Richmond, Wis., 117 deaths
10) June 8, 1953, Flint, Mich., 115 deaths