Tornado recovery needs housing, hospital and jobs

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LOUISVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Rescuers were still looking for people missing after Monday’s tornado when Louisville and Winston County officials started thinking about long-term recovery.

The county of 19,000 people in east Mississippi faces three major challenges - housing for hundreds left homeless, rebuilding its health care system after the twister shattered its hospital and jump-starting storm-damaged businesses.

Rebuilding will be slow, and not all residents may stick with it to the end. Take it from Smithville.

Just last Sunday, the Monroe County town celebrated completion of a new town hall, a milestone on the third anniversary of a tornado that killed 16 residents and destroyed or damaged more than 150 homes. The police department, the post office, a school, the only grocery store and four Smithville’s five churches were hit.

Smithville has rebuilt the buildings. But the pre-tornado population of 900 has fallen to about 600.

“There are lasting effects,” said the Rev. Wes White of Smithville Baptist Church. Known to his congregation as Brother Wes, White rode out the 2011 tornado at the church with residents from a mobile home park as the church disintegrated. Somehow, all survived.

Five members of the congregation elsewhere at the time of the storm died.

“It’s a process. We don’t forget. We look back with love and appreciation for those that we lost, but we keep our eyes focused on how the Lord can use us today,” White said. “What we’re trying to do as a community is not just restore what was, but we have a vision of what can be.”

Even as Winston County buries its 10 dead, officials are trying to create a vision for rebuilding.

“This is about doing community development and not economic development,” said Gerald Mills, executive director of the Winston County Economic Development Partnership. “It’s about starting over.”

With more than 100 people in shelters and others staying with relatives, housing is a pressing need. Only perhaps 40 houses were for sale in Winston before the storm, and the 6,600-resident town of Louisville already had what Mills called “a critical shortage” of rental options.

Apartments and motel rooms are more plentiful 30 miles away in Starkville. But there is a risk people won’t return to Winston. Once they move, it may be simpler or cheaper to stay there.

“The least thing they can afford to do is drive 50 miles to stay in a motel or rented apartment,” said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Robert Latham.

Latham said state officials are seeking federal temporary housing assistance, and that could turn out to be mobile homes. Louisville could have to change ordinances to allow a group site, said Mayor Will Hill.

“We don’t want people to leave here,” he said.

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