On the day after the 3 year anniversary of the storm system that demolished Smithville Mississippi and inspired the writing of one of my novels, a tornado landed a few miles from my home and ripped through the town of Tupelo. Tupelo is no stranger to this kind of storm. The town was destroyed by a similar storm in the 1930s. Somehow, this storm left only one fatality (over 200 died in the 1930s). Like in my novel, the siren near our home did not go off. My husband and I were in the yard with our sons, watching the clouds. I had just viewed a photo of the storm chasers' armored vehicle parked downtown and read that Jim Cantore was here. Until that moment, we had been unworried about the weather.
Standing in the yard, looking up, we could see clouds pouring in from three directions. The tree limbs were blown in circles. All of the clouds were white, except one big round cloud that brewed a dark purple. It was far enough in the distance that we kept standing, watching it swirl.
"That's the one," my husband said. "That one will drop to the northeast of us."
I was not scared. I could see the cloud and see that it was moving away from my home. When I first moved to Tornado Alley, the slightest clap of thunder sent me crying into a hallway or closet. On Monday, I walked calmly into my home and went back to work. When Corey said it would land northeast of us, I truly thought it would be far northeast of us, many towns distant.
It dropped about two miles away.
It dropped and it ate our town for lunch.
No. I take that back. It did not eat our town. It ate our buildings. It ate homes and businesses and trees and roads. It changed the landscape indefinitely. But our town stands stronger than ever.
The people of Tupelo amazed me in the aftermath of my friend's husband being shot in the line of duty, and they amazed me again this week. My husband has spent almost every moment holding a chainsaw and sweating through his clothes. My sons, at 9 and 12, spent an entire day sawing limbs. They freed one woman from her home and have been clearing roads and yards for church members. I haven't seen the damage firsthand. I've followed the rules and stayed home, out of the way. Our power is spotty, but the issue seems so unimportant in the face of so much devastation.
Two of our teens had a tree come into their basement right where they'd been standing seconds before. My friend's 91-year-old great aunt survived the 1930s tornado, on her 13th birthday, and survived this one as well, despite it tearing her house up around where she stood clinging to her walker. Somehow, we had only one fatality here in Tupelo. Looking at photos and listening to stories, I don't know how this is possible. I refuse to be one of those people who claims our safety as God's blessing. What does that say about those who were not so lucky? I don't believe God ignored other towns and protected lives in Tupelo because we are some kind of special. But it does seem supernatural, the chances of only one death from this storm.
Our town lost a young man in Alabama as well. A Tupelo boy pushed his girlfriend out of the way and died saving her.
We are a town in mourning this week. I struggle to focus on my manuscript or on reading or on anything much, other than staring out my window at the sky. I can't stop studying the clouds, as though there is a message there, an answer to so many questions.
I wanted to check in here, because many of my readers know my family lives in Tupelo. We are safe. Please pray for those who have lost so much, in Tupelo and across the nation.
Remember what matters today, friends. Remember that your house is only walls. Your family… they are what matters.
The following photos were taken by Katie Grace, one of our youth. What I learned from the Smithville tornado, however, is that photos cannot show the truth of the destruction.