At first blush, it may seem like just another old proverb:
The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors has sowed the wind. At some point, it will reap the whirlwind.
It’s not a metaphor. It seems only a matter of time.
Since 2019, when an EF3 Tornado ravaged parts of the county, including extensive damage in Columbus, District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith has urged the board to address a public safety issue that has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. That year, a record 115 tornadoes were confirmed in the state, an average of one tornado every three days. The average number of tornadoes in Mississippi for a calendar year is considerably lower: 33. Still, that’s a tornado every 10 days.
The impact of climate change makes the county’s gamble even bigger. There were 76 tornadoes in the central part of the state in just a 35-day period this spring. It’s likely the 2019 record will be smashed this year.
The county has four public shelters, all located east of the Tombigbee River. Yet there are no public shelters west of the river, an area where a large number of residents live in mobile homes that are particularly vulnerable to storms, as Smith has repeatedly noted.
There is one storm shelter west of the river: an 8-by-12 shelter located at the county’s road department barn in District 5, built in 2020 to provide shelter for its employees.
A reasonable question: If the county believes it necessary to provide a storm shelter for a handful of county employees who work west of the river, why has it been unwilling to provide a facility for people who live in the area?
It’s not as though there have not been opportunities. In 2019, the county renovated the old Crawford gym for use as a community center. Smith’s request to retrofit that $375,000 project — $350,000 of which came through a state bond package — as a storm shelter was rejected because of the cost. The estimate for a free-standing shelter is $60,000. The county can certainly afford it. In 2020, the supervisors approved $65,000 for new uniforms for the Sheriff’s Department, priorities being what they are.
Since 2015, the county has brought in more than $5 million in dividends from its hospital trust fund investments, money that is earmarked exclusively for capital improvements. But the only money devoted to storm shelters was for equipping the county’s new E911 Center, located next to the county courthouse in Columbus, for that use.
And when the county unveiled its plans for a $14 million sports complex west of the river, notably missing from the plans was a multi-purpose center that could be equipped as storm shelter.
Criticism of that plan led the supervisors to consider a Phase 2 of the complex, which would finally include a storm shelter.
There is no fixed time-table for Phase 2, though. It could be five years, 10 years, 20 years. No one knows for sure.
In two community meetings Smith has held recently, including one in Crawford Tuesday, storm shelters have been a big part of the discussion. Those residents are preaching to the choir.
Smith has consistently urged his fellow board members to provide a shelter for those who live west of the river.
As long as the county supervisors sow the wind, that tragic harvest of the whirlwind remains a danger that could have — and should have — been addressed.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.