SMITHVILLE, Miss (Reuters) – The small town of Smithville, Mississippi may have endured the strongest tornado of the dozens that pounded the southern U.S. this week, packing such force that it hurled bodies into nearby fields, weather experts and local officials said on Friday.
While other tornadoes got more attention, Smithville is the only one of the historic wave of twisters to be rated the maximum EF5 by Friday, said Jared Guyer, a forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center, in Norman, Oklahoma.
The first tornado of that magnitude in Mississippi since March 1966, it flattened the post office, leveled businesses and sliced rooftops off homes.
“You look around and nothing is familiar anymore,” said Todd Cleary, a lifelong resident. “Our favorite shops and restaurants are gone. Who can recover from something like this?”
EF5 means that the intensity of the storm was the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale used to measure tornadoes.
Smithville is in Monroe County along the Alabama border, where 14 people are confirmed dead and 14 more are reported missing. At least 33 people died in Mississippi and more than 300 across the South.
The Smithville tornado was half a mile wide and traveled a path of nearly three miles, with winds reaching 205 miles per hour, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
“It not only sounded like a train, it sounded like ten trains,” Cleary said.
On Friday, time seemed to have stood still in what was left of the battered town. Clothes and debris hung from trees, cars remained flipped upside down and baby toys and dolls were sprawled in the rubble of demolished homes.
More than 200 homes and 20 businesses in Smithville were destroyed, said Monroe County Sheriff Andy Hood.
“It is utter devastation,” Hood said. “We had numerous homes made out of brick and built solid. Right now, those homes are slabs of concrete. There is nothing left.”
Search and rescue efforts had given way to recovery. Hood said officials found bodies in fields and away from homes, indicating victims had either been outside when the storm came or got carried away by the wind.
State officials, including Governor Haley Barbour, toured the town on Friday to view the damage firsthand.
“I can tell you this is as bad as I have ever seen it,” said state Senator Billy Hewes, a Republican from Gulfport.
(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Greg McCune)
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