Path length: 37.1 miles*
Width: 1320 yards*
County: Monroe, Itawamba (MS) / Marion, Franklin (AL)
*indicates a value that is not consistent with other evidence; see discrepancies at the end for more accurate numbers.
This summary is not styled in a typical fashion. It is extremely detailed and in chronological order, meant to comprehensively cover the information gap on the Smithville tornado that has largely remained for the past nine years, finally telling the story of Smithville itself – the people who suffered every bit as much as those in the more famous tornadoes of 4/27/11. All non-government images are presented with the specific, direct approval of the photographers. No images are to be used anywhere else in any other manner without direct knowledge and consent of the owners. A deep thank you to the image providers Parish Portrait Design, Cody Carson, Darnell Collums, and Kelley Robison for their invaluable, eyewitness information given about the aftermath that helped contribute to this summary, and permission to feature their photos. Thank you also to JJ Jasper, Mark Westcott, Beth Coggin, Christy Corbell McLemore, Johnny Buckner, Chris Parker, and Brandon Johnson for giving permission for your photographs to be featured here. Lastly, a huge thanks to Jason Harris for his detailed, invaluable information about the aftermath. This would not be possible the way it is without you guys; thank you!
The Smithville tornado is typically not considered one of the most extreme tornadoes in history. For the significance of the event, documentation was minimal; minimal for good reason. Unlike other extreme tornadoes that have become legendary like Bridge Creek and Joplin, Smithville resided within a series of events known as the 2011 Super Outbreak. With so many violent tornadoes, Smithville was largely overlooked. Overwhelmed with dozens of significant events that needed to be surveyed immediately, the National Weather Service of Memphis would only publish a short paragraph of bare details on the disaster. Thus, Smithville became the only 5-rated tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale that would never be surveyed in any detailed fashion. Few photographs are even publicly labeled as damage from the tornado in the first place; many of those that were have been lost due to a restructuring of the NWS website. The people of Smithville would never receive the attention they should have dealing with the aftermath of such a tragedy. Thus, this summary will not only examine the tornado, but have a main focus on the impact to the people of Smithville themselves.
The Story of Smithville on April 27, 2011
Even monsters aren’t born fearsome. The birth of the storm that would produce the tornado began as radar beams first penetrated a tiny cloud of water droplets at 10:30 a.m. CDT in Winn County, Louisiana – roughly 280 miles from Smithville and five hours, twenty minutes before the strike.
By 12:55 p.m. CDT the storm had developed into a fledgling supercell, and a severe thunderstorm warning was first issued in conjunction with it as it crossed the LA-MS line. Around 2:05 p.m. CDT, it received the first of many tornado warnings to come.
The first tornado, known most commonly as the Wren tornado, would be on the ground for 51.45 miles for about 48 minutes before dissipating near Amory, MS in Monroe County. The NWS Memphis states a total of seven died from this EF-3 tornado, though the NCDC – National Climatic Data Center – gives an almost certainly more accurate value of four with more detail.
The Wren tornado lifted roughly seven miles to the southwest of Smithville, which had been under a tornado warning since 3:01 p.m. CDT. In fact, Smithville would receive a nearly unheard of 44 minutes of warning before the tornado entered the town. This is an incredible, outstanding lead time far beyond what is expected – anyone who would or could take appropriate action and seek shelter had more than enough time to do so. In that regard, Smithville was an outstanding success for the NWS – amazing as this was in the midst of the largest tornado outbreak in recorded history.
Tornado sirens would blare, neighbors with electronic device notifications would alert others, and for those who heeded the warnings there was plenty of time to prepare. Sadly, many would follow human nature and wait for visual confirmation with their own eyes. Unfortunately, when dealing with one of the fastest F/EF-5 tornadoes in history, doing so was often a fatal decision.
With the previous tornado having dissipated at 3:38 p.m. CDT, the storm rapidly cycled, producing a new, far more violent tornado that is the focus of this summary. The cycling would not be noted in NWS updates of the warning, and a tornado emergency would also never be issued; it would nevertheless be described as a “large and extremely dangerous” tornado.
Shortly after the Wren EF3 lifted, the area between it and the touchdown point of the Smithville EF5 became interspersed with devastating rear flank downdraft (RFD) that mowed down trees in straight-line fashion. Years after, this remains starkly visible on satellite imagery. At the moment of touchdown, trees were being snapped from as much as 2/3rds of a mile south and pointed in the direction of the birthing wall cloud.
Accounts on the exact time of the touchdown differ slightly. The NWS Memphis page lists 3:44 p.m. CDT as the touchdown time; referencing satellite and radar data, that would not be possible, as it was already in the western portion of town by then. The SPC, NCDC, and the April 2011 Storm Data Publication list the time as being 3:42 p.m. CDT. Mapping the directions that trees were felled in that area shows a vivid cycloidal pattern of intense tree damage farther back than any of these sources. Thus, I have my estimated start time as 3:41 p.m. CDT.
The NCDC lists the starting point as 3 miles to the WSW of Smithville – with their coordinates being 3.52 miles WSW; the coordinates on the NWS Memphis website put it at 3.35 miles to the WSW of Smithville. Neither of those points align horizontally or vertically with the satellite swath of the tornado. I estimate the starting point to be about 3.9 miles to the WSW of Smithville, mere yards from the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway and at closest about 0.85 miles from highway 25. The vortex was immediately capable of uprooting and snapping trees, growing in strength and size as it accelerated to the NNE and exhibiting a multi-vortex (meaning several circulations within a larger vortex) pattern.
6/10ths of a mile from the start or about 40 seconds after the tornado began, an extremely narrow and intense core abruptly formed. 15-40 yards wide, this streak was of violent intensity. It tore up lower lying vegetation, debarked trees and caused severe grass scouring. The overall size of the tornado was rapidly increasing as it screamed towards the town at 63 mph.
The core of intense damage seen above would only last for 3/4ths of a mile. Then, the tornado would become quite weak as it approached David Road S. Trees even remained standing and foliated. Yet it was just then, the beast really awoke; and all hell broke loose.
Blissfully unaware of the danger on the road behind him, a 69-year old man by the name of Jimmy Cowley was puzzled as his lifelong neighbor, Mikey Philips had never once sped in his life. But there was no mistaking the car that roared up Highway 25 past him in the direction of Smithville. Puzzled, that is, until he looked into his rear-view mirror.
At Mel’s Diner, the customers had an abrupt interruption to their meal as the owner, Bobby Edwards, called the staff on the phone and ordered them to get everyone into the cooler – a tornado was coming. One of those who would pack into the cooler was a man named Paul Estis.
In Smithville lived a 16 year old boy, a highly talented avid weather enthusiast by the name of Johnny Parker. This young man was skilled to such a degree, that he was in fact the most knowledgeable “weather guy” in the community. This meant that a large portion of Smithville was subscribed to his social media for information about weather. Johnny had been closely following the storm that produced the Smithville tornado with increasing concern. He saw a report that a tornado had been spotted two miles west of Smithville; so he did something that surely saved many lives. Some people didn’t have a weather radio or have automatic alerts for severe weather; but Johnny could also contact them. To everyone who followed him he texted this: “Get to a safe place NOW!”
As more residents climbed into an underground storm shelter, they took a last look at the daunting cone shaped tornado which was widening into a wedge before their very eyes. A picture was taken, one that I do not have permission to feature but shows that at the time, the tornado was highly visible for miles. But all the same, it was just too fast.
The speed with which Smithville intensified was incredible, perhaps historic. It was roughly six seconds, or 197 yards, between leaving trees foliated and standing to the beginning of a metaphorical finger of God dragging itself across the landscape, as suction vortices ground a deep trench into the earth. Scouring is not unusual for very violent tornadoes, but these trenches were only matched by the Philadelphia, MS EF5 that same day. Otherwise, this scar on the landscape has no known equal. It’s even more incredible when considering the duration of the worst of the tornado; my rough calculations would estimate that throughout the various points of its EF5 intensity, those extreme winds lasted only between one half and three seconds, far less than most other comparable EF-5s. In fact, it is prominent enough to remain visible on satellite imagery years later.
Violent tornadic winds may only have extended 50-70 yards wide at this point, but strong tornadic winds could have approached 350-400 yards across. The tornado itself had already surpassed half a mile in width, and still it grew. A gas station that had been converted into a Bed and Breakfast and three mobile homes would literally disappear, granulated with disturbingly little trace of existence as the tornado crossed Glover Wilkins Road, only one and a half miles from downtown Smithville. This is where the first fatality would occur. Curiously, a mother and daughter would be hurled from their disintegrating mobile home into a culvert. This would protect them from the worst of the storm. Despite serious injuries, both survived after several weeks of recovery in a hospital.
One photograph (seen below), shows the violently changing directions of the winds within the tornado. A 30-35,000 pound, very large RV was entirely shredded of its body and hurled 250 yards into a field, embedding deeply into the ground. There were no impact marks between where it started and landed that I could find, meaning it was likely airborne the entire distance between. A telephone pole was lodged horizontally underneath the RV chassis in the ground but perpendicular to the direction of the vehicle remains. About a foot away, a piece of 2X4 plywood was speared almost vertically into the ground.
Some distance away lay the remains of a semi truck. The truck driver was Jason Harris, who was able to provide me with excellent, specific details on the fate of this vehicle. The blue 1999 Freightliner FLD had a load of five, 60 inch diameter steel pipes. Each were 65 feet long and strapped to a flatbed trailer. The truck, trailer and pipes combined weighed about 70,000 pounds. Eyewitnesses Jason spoke to claimed that for a second or two, the vehicle rocked back and forth. Then, the entire rig shot straight upwards. It began flipping, and the trailer separated from the truck. The 16,000 pound truck was said to have struck the ground, flipping twice from the force of the impact before coming to rest in the field. It was thrown about 300 yards, almost all of it airborne. That semi truck had been shredded of its body nearly down to the wheels. The trailer would be found half a mile away on the highway. It had been twisted nearly in two down the middle. Four of the pipes would be recovered. All of them were scattered and ruined, egg shaped from impacting the ground. One would never be found, and my efforts at locating this missing pipe were just as unsuccessful. I do not believe it was thrown and never found, but rather destroyed. It is possible smaller pieces of this lost pipe have, however, been found. A friend was able to analyze a photograph of a surviving pipe and determine the exact make and strength of these five by 65 foot pieces of steel. What he found was simply remarkable. This type of pipe is known as spiral wound pipe, in which pieces of steel are rolled and welded together. It would take at least 70,000 pounds of pulling force just to separate the welds according to standard requirements. If this pipe was indeed destroyed, it would be an extraordinary feat of damage with few parallels.
Yet all of this was still surpassed by yet another feat of damage stemming from the Bed and Breakfast. For at that location there had been two semi trucks. The second was a grey 1997 Freightliner FLD. Was. The largest piece Jason and I have seen of this vehicle was a fender. That fender was hanging from the strut of a water tower 1.4 miles to the northeast. It is not uncommon for significant tornadoes to move and even loft cargo containers, metal tanks, and the trailers of semi trucks. However, fully lofting the truck itself for any distance is far more rare due in part to the heavier, highly concentrated weight and a very non-aerodynamic shape. To completely destroy a semi truck is unheard of; no other tornado in recorded history has done so. If Jason had not told me of this second tractor trailer, I would never have discovered its existence – or lack thereof.
Jimmy Cowley like his neighbor now floored it, pushing his truck past 55 mph; but all the same, that was far too slow. Despite moving perpendicularly to the tornado, it still caught up to him. Not one person would successfully outrun the Smithville tornado, including Mikey Philips from earlier.
His truck was thrown, and that probably saved his life. It pushed him away from the most violent part of the tornado. The truck landed upside down in a field. A piece of tin cut a four inch gash in Mikey’s head. He maintains that had it been a few inches lower, his head would have been cut off.
His pickup truck ended up in vastly better condition than another one nearby. Far outside of the worst damage, a blue pickup, that most likely originated at the Bed and Breakfast, arced towards the earth. Somehow, the now engineless front portion wrapped around a tree. This tree would begin to be ripped up and only kept “standing” because the back of the truck had made contact with the ground, creating an impact mark in the soil.
Two views of a truck wrapped around a tree. Even for such a rare feat, this instance is special because the truck was hurled and wrapped around the tree outside of the core (MSBaptists).
Every newer house in Smithville was required by law to be built to a standard well within the EF-5 range. Most of these houses were quite large, some two or more stories.
On the property of the first residence to be struck – one of the only houses built before the building codes to be well constructed – the first structures that were hit were two metal silos. The smaller one was somewhat farther from the most intense area and does not appear to have been anchored; it left a slab with the majority of the base cinder blocks remaining. The larger silo, about 30 feet wide and 35-40 feet tall, seems to have been anchored – though that cannot be confirmed. It completely disappeared, with not one cinder block left on the slab and only two large chunks of a block downwind. Several more structures, including storage areas for a marina and farm machinery, were razed as well.
From one of these storage areas, a bowling ball was thrown an unknown distance and cracked. A large portion of a pontoon boat was also hurled three quarters of a mile from a marina.
Speaking of that first house, it was completely swept away with severe granulation to the debris. Granulation is when large debris are ground up into small pieces by a tornado. The foundation of the house was lifted up and partially dislodged, chipped and slightly eroded with evidence of deformation on one side. There were no attachments that would have dragged it up, nor does it appear to have been dragged by any. The garage slab was also twisted. Heavy ground scouring occurred behind the home along with extreme tree and low lying vegetation damage, and granulated debris was plastered to the side of the slab. Sadly, Jesse Cox – the owner of the nearby marina – was killed in this home.
Two views of the garage slab with the house slab beyond it. Both were moved slightly, the house somewhat more significantly. There was severe granulation and ground scouring at this location, with granulated debris and shredded vegetation plastered to the sides of the slab. The first image shows how the garage slab was more twisted than pushed (Parish Portrait Design).
Near the home along the far fringe of the core winds, a mutilated milk truck from the road had come to rest. While not enduring quite the extreme conditions the previous large vehicles had, this one, unfortunately, had been occupied. It was reported that the milk truck driver had been sucked out of the truck after being unable to outrun the tornado. He would be found alive laying in a field with a broken back, a punctured lung, and an almost completely severed arm. This kind of truck without any hold or cargo weighs approximately 15,000 pounds. The storage area was completely obliterated, and the heavy steel framing of the back twisted. I have no approximate distance on how far the milk truck was moved by the tornado. Judging by the angle, it was most likely thrown and then dragged a couple hundred yards. A piece of wood was embedded in the engine block of the vehicle, and most exterior portions were stripped from it as well.
A clipping from a newspaper showing an aerial of this home and nearby storage buildings (newspapers.com).
Carolyn Boyd had seen the danger that Mr. Cowley had not noticed; however, the storm had approached too quickly to take advantage. Her small, unanchored home was dragged 50 feet across the ground and twisted in the opposite direction. She was hit by a falling recliner, which shielded her from the glass of the shattering windows. Fortunately, her home was outside the core of the damage. The residents of 14 mobile homes next to her house had had plenty of time to seek shelter elsewhere due to timely tornado warnings. The tornado exhibited extreme violence towards even the very metal frames of mobile homes. I previously attempted to map where each had been thrown, but failed simply because many were torn apart, some into small fragments.
Hundreds of yards to the north and also outside the core was a 300-foot tall cell tower. It had three guy wire anchors. The tower was uprooted from its foundation, facing the opposite direction of the tornado’s passage. One of the guy wires had been dragged several feet through the ground.
The tornado continued to move along Highway 25, slabbing several more homes and a church. Somewhere in this area, a red SUV was picked up by the tornado and would begin an incredible journey that is explained later. Vegetation damage was highly unusual in a short section of this area as well. Every tree sustained some level of debarking but none, not even a stump was left standing; most were uprooted and moved short distances. Several completely disappeared.
Only small craters in the ground were left where they had once stood. Normal trees are sometimes lofted by violent tornadoes under special types of situations, and small trees are often tossed. While large trees weighing several tons are easily spotted on satellite and aerial imagery, no candidates for the disappeared have been noted. This leaves open the likelihood that they were pulverized after becoming airborne within the violent core. There were also an enormous number of impact marks, not limited to here but along the entire trek throughout Smithville.
Amateur meteorologist Johnny Parker, his sister and father were huddled in the hallway of their house. The dad, Randy, said he had heard a voice that said move, and it was like he was pushed towards the bathroom. He pulled the kids inside, and before Randy could even close the bathroom door everything on one side of the house flew down the hallway like a wind tunnel, embedding itself on the other side. All three of the Parkers would survive, and the mother of Johnny, Patty – who had been driving home after Johnny’s text and who had seen the tornado move through – would shortly reunite with her family.
The direct core of extreme winds had previously reached near 100 yards in width, largely over fields. Now, it contracted to no more than 50 yards wide. Here, a curious piece of damage would occur, 4/5ths of a mile west-southwest of Smithville along the highway.
The body of a car can be stripped from its chassis, and even completely destroyed with the pieces scattered across a long distance. This happened to multiple vehicles within Smithville. And yet, this particular car sustained perhaps even more impressive circumstantial damage. The entire car – which I was unconvinced of until viewing photos from several different angles – looked okay if viewed from its left side, yet the body was compressed so fully into that same side that it was roughly 15-30 inches wide. The left side edge of the bottom was embedded in the ground, but the other side of the bottom had been folded upwards to meet the roof. All of the car, not just the outer shell or the frame, was compressed in this manner. There are other factors that make this feat still more incredible. It only traveled 50 yards. The journey could not have lasted more than one or two seconds. There were no objects larger than this car that would have crushed it. I have been unable to make contact with the photographer of the most revealing image, but if I do, it will promptly be added into this summary.
Views of the compacted car from opposite angles (Parish Portrait Design).
Eva Smith had not taken shelter. The tornado did not knock, at least not very politely. She looked out her living room window and saw her car and half her garage coming straight at her.
She grabbed a couch cushion to shield herself, but then what felt like two hands pushed her into the hallway as the roof peeled off and the debris pelted her home. She wanted to go to a closet, but the closet was now gone. Again, the two hands pushed her into a bedroom and out the window into a rosebush as the house was destroyed. Eva was lucky; the worst of the tornado had missed her home by yards and, unlike many others, she had survived.
In one house that was left largely intact, a stick blasted right through the wooden door leaving a hole in it. The small branch continued onwards to embed in a wall, sticking out the other side. The granulated splinters of trees and buildings raked across another home’s wall like a thousand knives, many no bigger than a penny. In yet another home farther away, curtains would fly upwards inside the structure, nearly being sucked out of the house from between the roof and walls despite those surfaces being anchored to each other.
According to Darnell Collums, half of a boat was wedged above the ground between two trees behind her mother in law’s home in the forest. She has no idea where the boat came from; it is likely still there to this day. The home itself was outside of the main damage path; things sitting on the porch were left undisturbed. The red SUV mentioned before was still flying over the carnage, suspended above by the tornadic updraft. Another vehicle, a 1965 Chevy pickup truck, would also be lofted in this area; the NWS reported that at the time of the survey, the owner had not been able to find it. Granted, I may have found a match for his that will be featured later on. I have been definitely told that he is far from the only resident who never found a trace of their vehicles – if indeed he never found it.
As the tornado crossed over the intersection of L and S Circle and Highway 25, an underground waste pipe was partially ripped upwards. No official information is known about this unique instance of incredible damage, but the contextual clues surrounding the location would indicate this being a legitimate feat, as explained in the caption of the photograph below. (Note: this is not related to the culvert that was falsely reported by multiple sources to have been torn out by the tornado later in the track). The tornado would next cross a creek, filling the stream with the debris of homes and mangled cars.
The tornado relentlessly continued into Smithville proper. Having reached the weakest point it would attain in the vicinity of the town, it began to reintensify after crossing the creek seen above and destroying three more well built homes. Low lying vegetation and shrubs at two of these homes were pulled upwards and shredded in extreme fashion, and small trees were snapped a couple inches above the ground. Everything was removed from the hardest hit homes: flooring, sill plating, plumbing, everything. The gravel driveway of one home completely disappeared, leaving no trace that it had existed. Somewhat farther to the northwest, a large iron girder – perhaps a runner torn from the rest of a large mobile home frame – slammed into the ground in the opposite direction of the forward motion next to a car. While embedded in the ground, it appears that it was twisted through the grass to make a U-shape around a car. That car had had the siding stripped away.
Along with a dozen people back at Mel’s diner, Paul Estis was closing the door to the cooler as Joyce and Danny Miller fled a rental house next door and ran into the diner. Joyce was able to slip in, but Danny, though he had made it inside the diner, was too late. The door was shut as powerful winds flipped Danny. Inexplicably, this threw him into a bunkbed like space, the undershelf of a metal prep table. That almost certainly saved his life, as all but the cooler and the wall he was against were torn apart. Inside the cooler, Paul fought to keep the door shut as his daughter prayed. Fortunately for them, the worst of the tornado was to the north; everyone in the building survived.
The tornado moved past Court St. into the north side of the town, the core beginning to tear through a subdivision and widen. Eight mobile homes would vanish, and to the south, several businesses, including Mel’s Diner, the post office, a retail building, the bank, a clinic, a Dough Bellies, a pharmacy, the police department and more were damaged or destroyed by winds likely in the EF2 to EF4 range. Security cameras at the police department would capture the tornado as it began to destroy the building; seven people, including the police chief and a family, survived in an interior room, suffering minor injuries. The chief, Darwin Hathcock, described it as only lasting 1-2 seconds before it was gone, like an explosion. The mayor in town hall along with some employees, which was also mostly destroyed, did not need to see the tornado to know that it was coming – or even hear the roar. The shaking of the ground underneath their feet told them enough. Others survived in a bank vault in a nearby building. All of these people, like those in Mel’s Diner, and many more in a church further up the road, would likely be dead if the tornado had tracked just 60 yards farther to the south; that is how close this tornado came to having the highest single town death toll of the Super Outbreak.
There were four people inside the large Pearson family home when the tornado struck; their two kids of ages four and eight, the babysitter and aunt of the children Carla Jones, and her teenage son, Austin. Carla had laid over the children in a heroic attempt to keep them sheltered. The core of the twister blasted through the home, killing Carla. Austin was thrown northward into a nearby field “behind the home”. If it is the field behind the house, then that is a newly made baseball field that lay about 100 yards away; he suffered unknown injuries. The other children were also thrown with him. The last thing 8 year-old Josh remembers is flying through the air.
I believe this saved their lives; the direction they were thrown indicates that occurred near the beginning of the tornado’s strike, and the location was outside the area of violent winds. The home was slabbed, with some anchor bolts disappearing entirely with gashes where they had once been located. Much of the flooring was also removed. Had they not been thrown from the home, it is unlikely they would have survived. The two young children both suffered terrible shrapnel wounds, fractured skulls and a host of other injuries. However, both would, oddly, get up from the field and stagger back to sit on the edge of the slab where they had once lived.
The tornado slightly deformed some used, welded, and bolted down steel railroad tracks as it crossed Earl Frye Street. Several more large, multi-story homes were disintegrated from where they had stood, the grass and ground scouring growing more intense. One of these may have been three stories. Along the center line and as in other locations in the town, small-medium sized debris appeared to have blasted gouges into the surface of the road. To the north, a tar and chip road was torn up and coiled into rolls. The clinic was also destroyed. A fire hydrant with five feet of piping was sucked out of the ground, and at least two other fire hydrants were destroyed in Smithville.
A family ranging from ages 1 to 91 helped their grandmother to an underground storm shelter, barely arriving in time. In fact, they were hurled into the shelter by the winds. Michele Wardlaw saw a white car fly over their heads before shutting the door. The handle of the shelter door was twisted by the winds and the people inside needed to hold it down during the tornado, though the worst of the core did not quite pass over that location.
Supposedly, according to Parish Portrait Design who talked to the survivors, it was so intense that by the time the tornado had passed there was even grass in a baby’s diaper. In total, fourteen people survived in this shelter. Another unusual feat is the remains of a 2-3 ton tractor would be found in this area. I believe it originated from the property of the first destroyed house. If I am correct, it was therefore moved about 1.15 miles.
350 yards south of the shelter, a large dent would be made approximately 150 feet above the ground in the easternmost of the town’s two water towers. This dent, which was six inches deep and 32 inches wide, had flecks of red paint in it; red paint that would be sent to a lab for testing and confirmed to come from the impact of a several ton SUV that had previously been located about a half mile to the east. Red paint to this very day remains etched into the surface of that structure. Yet even after striking the water tower the vehicle never even hit the ground, continuing its journey.
Crossing Elm, Poplar and nearing Monroe Street, the tornado may very well have been at its most violent within Smithville. Deep, extreme ground scouring would occur in this subdivision as another half dozen large, multi story homes were slabbed at extreme EF-5 intensity. Anchor bolts, flooring, sill plating – nothing was left on pockmarked slabs, everything taken as debris was severely granulated even worse than ever before. Multiple photos of concrete driveways show that even the tiny granulated debris had at least somewhat chipped away at the surface of them. If there was ever low-lying vegetation in this area and shrubs in front of these homes, I could not find a trace of it. The same was true for trees; some were downed, debarked, and usually displaced from where they had been rooted. Others completely disappeared.
Similar to where the first home was struck, multiple vehicles were completely disintegrated. Some residents here never found a trace. Others were mutilated, a few leaving their engines in one part of the town and the body ending up somewhere else.
The EF-5 winds may have exceeded 100 yards in width in this area, and the strong tornadic wind field was about a quarter of a mile wide. The overall width was about 7/10ths of a mile.
Something else very unusual would happen as the tornado tore through the subdivision. A thorough, close analysis of the structure damage and the trajectory of debris revealed that this tornado briefly had a complete second core. This core began by slabbing a brick rest stop. Even though south of the tornado’s center, it moved north west for a short distance, then making a sharp turn to the northeast. Now, it was paralleling the motion of the main center of the tornado.
Crossing Monroe Road and continuing northeast, debris would be windrowed (strewn in a line) from a home by this mixture of satellite tornado and streamer vortex across a cemetery over 300 yards. In the cemetery along the path of the second core, gravestones were knocked over and outright snapped off in opposite directions – some actually lofted from where they had once been rooted. In fact, both “cores” were seemingly capable of EF-5 damage at the same time. While I presume this vortex has formed from similar mechanics to a suction vortex, it acted semi-separately and briefly rivalled the real center made up of smaller vortices itself. Thus, I distinguish it with the word “core” because both were comparable and simultaneous concentrations of the most intense damage from the tornado.
To the north of this cemetery was the slab where a large, brick funeral home had once stood. Small and medium sized vegetation here was left completely debarked, splintered and pockmarked. Only a small portion of the tiling remained. Because of the building codes for the town of Smithville, this structure was presumably anchored and well built. On the other side of the slab, most of the small low lying vegetation was ripped up and shredded. But none of this is as stunning as what can be seen in photographs of the slab; what may look like dark sandy dirt. But this is not dirt. It is granulated debris, mostly brick, that has been practically turned into powder. When considering the extreme forward speed, this could be the most impressive feat of granulation ever photographed. Originally planned to be rebuilt, the slab of the funeral home was deemed unusable for reasons unknown and removed after the tornado.
Debris had been strewn in a very thin line from the northward portion of the funeral home well into the forest beyond. Near the strewn debris along a ditch at the tree line, a crumpled red SUV had come to rest. It had traveled over a third of a mile from where it had impacted a water tower to complete its journey.
From here, the tornado crossed Cemetery Drive and inflicted extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented vegetation damage. All vegetation of every kind was denuded and extensively, deeply debarked; not as if the bark was torn off the tree, but as if it had been eroded. Formerly large, mature hardwood and softwood trees alike were left more looking like cream yellow splintered spikes. A tree in the center of the photograph below lost a main limb that directly faced the EF5 winds. What should have been a splintery stubbed end was instead pancaked back into itself and widened.
Typically, violent tornadoes will often leave a smoothbore interior after debarking a tree. Even outside the unprecedented vegetative obliteration described above, some trees debarked to varying degrees looked as if a machine gun had been unloaded up and down the trunk. They had dozens, if not hundreds of pock-marked gouges from tiny debris impacts no larger than a coin. A photograph of the scene described above just north of the worst of the tornado damage shows a sort of rubber sealing strip among other things sliced into what may once have been a juvenile pine. It is impossible to say without being there in person, and I do not wish to spread rumors, but there may have been a leaf that was sliced into that tree.
Mercifully, this nuclear destruction would not take place over any other residents of Smithville. 150 yards south, many citizens from both of the local mobile home parks that were previously obliterated had taken shelter at the large Smithville Baptist church with the pastor in the nursery. This was a wise decision. The open, vulnerable sanctuary collapsed because of a lack of interior reinforcement, and a wing of the church that was closer to the core lost both exterior and interior walls. A few cars driven here by the very residents seeking refuge inside were hurled into the building. But deeper inside without a direct hit, they would remain safe.
The rampage continued across the obliterated section of forest and scraped the Smithville High School, sweeping away some cinder block dugouts and debarking whole swaths of trees.
A large bag of athletic gear from Smithville weighing an estimated 40 pounds was carried 30 miles to the town of Hodges AL. A large metal sign would also be carried 50 miles to Russellville, AL. This story is about Smithville and the NWS has excellently covered the path in Alabama, so the rest of the tornado’s rampage will only be touched upon briefly.
The most intense winds continued beyond the field into more forest for another mile and a quarter beyond the funeral home, narrowing and abruptly dissipating. In a few seconds it reformed, perhaps slightly less intense yet a little wider and no less dangerous.
In addition, several miles past the town in wild forest the tornado may have grown to its largest extent. The NWS did not personally survey this area, but I believe the tornado then reached a maximum width of closer to 9/10s of a mile. This is in contrast to the exact 0.75 miles listed in the official databases.
Regardless, only one isolated home would be significantly damaged in the rest of its path through Mississippi. It crossed from Monroe into Itawamba County, and from there into Marion County, Alabama – now into the County Warning Area (CWA) of the NWS Birmingham.
Within Marion County in Alabama, the path of the tornado was relatively well documented by the surveyors with one exception that will be listed below. Here is the summary in Marion County by the NWS Birmingham.
NWS Birmingham Summary
in Marion County
“National Weather Service meteorologists surveyed a long track violent tornado which initially touched down in Monroe County, Mississippi, southwest of the town of Smithville where it caused damage associated with an EF5 rating. The tornado moved northeast through Itawamba County before it crossed into Marion County, Alabama at a point near CR 93, southwest of Bexar. The tornado weakened to an EF1 rating as it entered Alabama, with winds of 110 mph. As the tornado tracked south of Bexar, a few mobile homes and outbuildings were damaged and numerous trees were snapped off and uprooted. The tornado moved across Corridor X/Future Interstate 22, near CR 33. As the tornado approached AL Hwy 19, 4 miles east southeast of Shottsville, it strengthened to an EF3 rating with winds of 160 mph, and destroyed several homes. This resulted in 6 fatalities.
The tornado continued northeastward where it destroyed several single family homes and mobile homes along CR 20 and AL Hwy 187, 9 miles north of Hamilton. As the tornado approached the Marion/Franklin County line, several more houses were damaged and at least one chicken house destroyed near AL Hwy 187. Along the Alabama portion of the tornado path, hundreds of trees were downed, and at least 25 homes, mobile homes, and outbuildings were damaged or destroyed. The average path width of the Alabama portion of the tornado path was 0.5 miles (880 yds). The tornado continued into Franklin County Alabama dissipating near Old Line Rd.”
“As the above summary was a preliminary statement from the NWS, several changes must be noted. The maximum winds within their CWA were increased to 165 mph, or extreme high-end EF3. A total of seven, not six, would die in Marion County. Lastly, it is possible that there was damage exceeding the EF3 category from the tornado as seen on the Damage Assessment Toolkit (DAT). However, the NWS Birmingham would never make any further investigation into the matter, so it remains unknown if the Smithville tornado could “officially” have been a violent (meaning an EF4-5) tornado when in Alabama. I will say that on satellite, the damage to the forest in unpopulated areas was exceedingly intense.”
The tornado did also continue into Franklin County – the CWA of the NWS in Huntsville AL – for officially 1.79 more miles, as seen in the following summary. In the discrepancies below, I have given a value that may be more accurate.
NWS Huntsville Summary
in Franklin County
“This tornado decreased quickly in intensity as it moved into southeastern Franklin county after producing EF-3 damage in Marion county. Just after crossing the Marion/Franklin county line, the tornado collapsed two chicken houses and ripped roofing material off of two others nearby along highway 187. The tornado continued its brief track northeast and ripped much of the roof off of a two story home as it approached highway 172. Based on roof damage observed and widespread nature of large trees blown down or snapped off near their base, winds were estimated at 120 mph — EF-2 tornado. Another house nearby experienced significant roof damage as well. The path width at this point was around 300 yards. As it reached highway 31, some minor shingle and home damage was observed. However, the tornado moved over a mainly forested portion of this area, continuing to snap/uproot numerous large trees, snapping several near their bases.
As the tornado moved toward Old Line Road, additional damage to houses was observed. A few homes had portions of their roofs peeled off. In addition, a mobile home was destroyed. In this area a car was totaled by the tornado. Numerous large trees were snapped off or blown down as well. A barn was heavily damaged by trees in this area as well. The path width of the tornado was largest at this point and was estimated to be around 550 yards. A path of numerous large trees being snapped or blown down continued just northeast of this road. The tornado appeared to gradually weaken and lift over the forested area northeast of Old Line Road as little additional damage was seen from ground surveys. New satellite imagery reveals tree damage extending a little over 1/2 mile east of Old Line Road. Due to this new information, the end point was adjusted slightly east from its original point (5/17/12).”
Back in Smithville, stunned residents attempted to find loved ones or free themselves from the debris. City mayor Greg Kennedy – who had taken shelter underneath a board table with two office workers – dug himself out of the remains of city hall, shocked to see instead of a wooded bustling town, a flat barren wasteland. However, he immediately sprung into action, helping to set up a triage area as the wounded poured in – some walking, some carried on the backs of doors and ATVs.
There is not much information available on this morbid side and I am grateful for that; it is known that the tornado had not been kind to the dead. Many of the bodies were, unusually, not underneath piles of rubble, but were moved. Most lay naked, stripped of clothing and hurled long distances. Some took several days to identify, even after they were cleaned of the embedded shrapnel and mud that coated them. The mayor, Greg Kennedy, used water and cotton rags to clean the faces of four of the dead before the Monroe County coroner arrived and took over. Even though he had talked to one of them less than two hours ago and had known all of them for years, he could not recognize a single face. A small shed near the easternmost water tower was where the bodies were stored for a few days until a refrigerated truck was procured, as it had the only door left that they could secure.
The injuries to the living were also ghastly, many shrapnel related; impalement, split skulls, extreme lacerations and others. There are other heartbreaking stories to tell; I list them not because I take absolutely any pleasure in including these gut wrenching narratives, but because they are an important part of this narrative. To shove them aside, ignore them because it is the story we do not wish to hear would be doing them and their families a disservice. And perhaps, people will understand better just how seriously tornadoes need to be taken.
Paul Estis had immediately headed for his parent’s house on Elm Street, where he found his father, Roy, among what was left of his home, still alive but battered with a hole in his stomach. Paul was given these heartbreaking words after Roy told him to find mama:
“Son, I was holding her in my arms, and she just went up, and I couldn’t hold on.”
Nobly, Roy had sent his eight year old nephew to a storm shelter that day, choosing to remain with his wife of 43 years who was unable to get up at that time. Ruth Estis was carried by the tornado a long distance, later found dead. Roy would die the next day in a hospital of his injuries.
Steve Umphress had been on the edge of the core. To him, the tornado sounded like a simultaneous buzz saw and a thousand pigs squealing. Hiding in an interior bathroom with his spouse of nine weeks, the last thing he remembered as the tornado arrived was a board blasting through the wall like a bullet and the wall collapsing. When he came to again, crouched on all fours, a horseshoe piece of skin had peeled off his skull and hung over his left eye. He held it back in place to keep from bleeding out. Despite the severity of his injury, Steve would survive. His wife, Barbara, spent 18 days in a coma but would eventually make a full recovery.
The tornado spared many of those who were not sucked into the core. Prompt medical treatment would save more than one life. There was a man with one hand, Terry Hill, who heard that Smithville needed help and arrived on the scene. With a prosthetic hook for a hand, he dug out Vickie Clingan from under five feet of debris. She would never see his face, but he had saved her. Sadly, her mother, who had been next door, did not survive.
Ann Seales, a town clerk, had been on the opposite side of town from her husband of 52 years when the tornado struck. They found each other on the highway in the middle of town; house destroyed, but with what is most important.
Josh and Emily Pearson were critically injured but survived. Austin Jones was less significantly injured and also lived. Jimmy Cowley, who was thrown in his truck, had his head sewn back up. For him, life largely returned to normal. There were others; the fourteen people who had huddled in an underground storm shelter. The dozen folks who had been given refuge in the cooler. The people who hid in a bank vault. The dozens that took shelter in the church. And the many, many more people who survived in underground storm shelters all throughout Smithville. Every one of these people survived. Among the ruin, there was life.
Here are the official path segment coordinates per the NCDC Database:
Monroe County (MS): Start: 34.0455/-88.4450 End: 34.0891/-88.3600
Itawamba County (MS): Start: 34.0891/-88.3600 End: 34.1677/-88.1932
Marion County (AL): Start: 34.1677/-88.1932 End: 34.3128/-87.9215
Franklin County (AL): Start: 34.3128/-87.9215 End: 34.3226/-87.8924
Here are my corrected coordinates:
Monroe County (MS): Start: 34.0410/-88.4504 End: 34.0877/-88.3646
Itawamba County (MS): Start: 34.0877/-88.3646 End: 34.1581/-88.1945
Marion County (AL): Start: 34.1581/-88.1945 End: 34.3128/-87.9194
Franklin County (AL): Start: 34.3128/-87.9194 End: 34.3507/-87.8561
This playlist has the 54 Youtube videos of the damage from Smithville (though more are spread out across the internet in other sites):
Here are all four videos showing the Smithville tornado:
In Loving Memory
The fatalities in Smithville, MS:
Betty Newkirk, 78
Celia Jackson, 92 (oldest victim)
Courtney Easter, 21
Elvin Patterson, 80
Jean Manley, 70
Hazel Noe, 80 (died of injuries 6 days later)
Jesse Cox, 84
Jessica Pace, 18 (youngest victim within MS)
Carla Jones, 37 (died protecting her niece, nephew and son)
Laverne Patterson, 77
Lucille Parker, 86
Maxine Chism, 79 (died of injuries 22 days later)
Mildred Elam, 79
Roy Estis, 63 (died of injuries the next day)
Ruth Estis, 61
Scott Morris, 41
The fatalities in Alabama:
Rodney Ables, 51
Michelle Brown, 43
Tammy Johnson, 52
Jacob Ray, 5 (youngest victim)
Virginia Revis, 53
Allan Wideman, 49 (died of injuries 9 days later)
Jeanette Wideman, 52
As much as I would like to say that Smithville has completely recovered from all the devastating impacts of this tornado, I will not do so. It hasn’t. Emotionally, it was awful. With such a tight community, everyone knew someone who died. Economically, it was catastrophic. The destruction was so terrible, they actually had to fight to keep their zip code as the postal service wanted to do away with it. 14 of the 16 businesses in the town were destroyed, and 2% of all the people in Smithville, or 16, were killed. Every major “safe” area where people gathered in large numbers to ride out the storm was avoided by the core. The death toll could have become still more unimaginable had just one of these locations been directly struck.
With no warning, I believe the death toll likely would have been between 50 and 80 in the town itself. 26,000 tons of debris had to be removed within two months from Smithville. Population wise, Smithville went from a steady rate of increase, then abruptly began to shrink in 2011 and has continued to do so ever since. A stark lack of homes and businesses can be observed in the northern half of the community. Where brand new, wooded neighborhoods once stood are now grassy fields with just a home or two.
However, this story does not end in despair. I don’t know of a Mississippi community that has come together more in the face of adversity. Volunteers from all over the country also arrived to aid them. Mel’s diner has been rebuilt, and is rumored to be better than before. Even the Sunday after the tornado, church was held in a field next to the destroyed building.
Eventually, it was fully rebuilt. I interviewed one of the photographers who provided some of the photos above, Parish Portrait Design. He put together a slideshow after the tornado to raise money for the victims. This slideshow would end up in a church in Texas, and roughly 54 thousand dollars would be raised in donations. Officials from Smithville traveled as far away as Greensburg, Kansas, for advice on how to recover from an EF-5 tornado.
The high school gym had been destroyed by the tornado. It was also rebuilt, but now it is more than just a gym. The new one is a large monolithic dome that not only is built to withstand winds up to 256 mph, it can hold as many as 3,000 people. Homes older homes that were rebuilt after the tornado are built to better standards due to the codes. Many more storm shelters are now in place across Smithville. Future plans are in progress to upgrade the warning system further. Combined with a monolithic dome that can fit over three times their population, Smithville is now almost certainly the most prepared town in Mississippi for a tornado. Smithville still lives on.
I hope everyone who reads this has learned something about the Smithville tornado. There is still much more not put in this summary. If you have questions about the tornado or more information on the event, contact me via email or on the Tornado Talk Discord.
- The NCDC and Storm Data Publication segments list the monetary costs of the tornado in Monroe County (more specifically in Smithville) to be 2.5 million dollars. That is a very small figure, and quite impossible as debris removal alone cost many times that number according to FEMA; USACE was authorized to spend up to 8 million dollars on debris removal in Monroe County. The SPC has it at 14.4 million dollars.
- According to NCDC and the NWS Birmingham, the total path length of the tornado was 37.3 miles. According to the NWS Memphis, it was 35.1 miles. According to the SPC, it was 37.1 miles. However, using satellite imagery I have determined that the actual length was probably about 40.8 miles – if compared for example to the NCDC stats, that is about 0.45 miles added onto the starting point, about 1/5th of a mile added with more accurate centerline projections, and 2.85 miles added onto the ending point, all determined with satellite imagery.
- The maximum width given for this tornado by the NCDC, SPC, and the Storm Data Publication was exactly 1,320 yards wide. The same is true for the NWS, with the width listed as “¾ mile” which is 1,320 yards. Using satellite and aerial imagery I was able to review unsurveyed areas in Itawamba County, MS. There, I determined the tornado reached a maximum path width of 1,630 yards.
Parish Portrait Design
Christy Corbell McLemore
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA)
NOAA Emergency Response Imagery
Mississippi National Guard
NWS Damage Assessment Toolkit
NCDC Storm Events Database Links:
Wren EF3 NCDC:
Smithville EF5 NCDC:
IEM Mesonet – Tornado Warning Archive
The Storm Prediction Center
NWS Damage Assessment Toolkit
April 2011 Storm Data Publication
Eye on the sky: Teen meteorologist survived April 27, 2011, tornado – Jennifer Cohron, Daily Mountain Eagle
Destroyed by tornado, church still gathers – William Perkins, Baptist Press
10 Seconds of Terror – Kristina Goetz
TORNADO DEBRIS CHARACTERISTICS AND TRAJECTORIES DURING THE 27 APRIL 2011 SUPER OUTBREAK AS DETERMINED USING SOCIAL MEDIA DATA – AMS
METEOROLOGICAL OVERVIEW OF THE DEVASTATING 27 APRIL 2011 TORNADO OUTBREAK – Kim Klockow, Insurance News Net
Tornado Debris Removal Completed in Smithville – FEMA
STORM RECOVERY UPDATES: Additional death attributed to Smithville tornado – Chris Elkins, Daily Journal
Smithville deaths at 14, recovery begins in NEMS – Chris Elkins, Daily Journal
Extreme damage incidents in the 27 April 2011 tornado superoutbreak – AMS
8 Observations on Infrastructure Performance – FEMA
Smithville rebuilds despite struggles – Mallory Johnson, Monroe Journal
Smithville tornado victim dies in Columbus hospital – Ryan Poe, The Dispatch
Names of all 240 tornado-related fatalities in Alabama – WAFF 48
Alabama tornado casualties: A list of those who died in the April 27, 2011 storms – AL.com
EXPERIENCES OF SMITHVILLE, MISSISSIPPI RESIDENTS WITH THE 27 APRIL 2011 TORNADO – Kathleen Sherman-Morris and Michael E. Brown, MSU
Smithville celebrates new domed gym-disaster structure as tornado recovery continues – Ted Carter, Mississippi Business Journal
Incident Action Checklist – Tornado – EPA
Long Term Community Recovery Plan Smithville, Mississippi August 2011
Weather Service says Monroe County windstorm was tornado – The Meridian Star
Storm Stories, The Next Chapter: Texas Flash Flood
Pipeline, Spring 2012 – Alabama Mississippi Section of the American Water Works Association
States Help People Pay for Tornado Shelters – Associated Press
Smithville Twister Horror Stories – Stephen Bowers, WTOK
In Tornado’s Path, Prayers, Fear – Arkansas Democrat Gazette
In Mississippi: After the Killer Tornado, An Abiding Faith – Carmen Sisson, TIME
CATFISH, GRITS, BISCUITS AND GRAVY, FRIED CHICKEN, AND TORNADOES – Great Loop Adventure
Natural Disasters keep spirit of giving link unbroken – Ray Van Dusen, Monroe Journal
Smithville Tornado Series Part I – Jeff Keating, FEMA
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