Two years later: Recovery from 2019 tornado has been slow, sporadic

February 20, 2021 7:57:33 PM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Tuesday marks the second anniversary of the EF-3 tornado that swept through the heart of Columbus north of Main Street.


All told, the storm damaged or destroyed 275 homes and 38 businesses with the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimating the damage to private property at $4 million with another $2.1 million in damages to city-owned property, $600,000 in damages to Columbus Light and Water equipment and a yet-to-be-determined amount of repair costs at the Columbus Municipal School District's Hunt property, which will add millions of dollars more to the final tally.


So 24 months later, what is the state of the recovery?



To answer that question, Mayor Robert Smith referred back to another storm.


In November 2002, when Smith was serving as Ward 1 councilman, straight line winds ripped through his ward.


"I think the recovery (from the 2019 tornado) is going to go a lot slower than it did back then," Smith said. "Back then, the storm was almost a blessing in disguise. The area built back, and in a lot of cases, built back better."


Indeed, two years later, the rebuilding effort from the 2019 tornado has been a mixed bag.


Columbus building inspector Kenneth Wiegel said his department has issued 80 residential remodeling/repair permits, but another 59 permits have been issued for residential demolitions. Although the storm's path affected a primarily residential area, there was some commercial property damage, as well, mostly along Waterworks Road and Tuscaloosa Road.


Wiegel said his department issued 12 permits for commercial remodeling/repairs and two permits for commercial demolition.


Many other property owners have simply walked away, said Lowndes County Tax Assessor/Collector Greg Andrews.


"In a normal year, we have about 25 tax liens," Andrews said. "In 2019-2020, we had over 145, almost all of them in that area of the city."



Different storms, different responses


Smith said the big difference between the 2002 and 2019 storms, where rebuilding is concerned, is the nature of the housing in the two areas and the way the storm affected properties.


"On Southside, many of those homes, even though they were in bad shape before the storm, were occupied by homeowners," Smith said. "Those were their homes and they were able to get help from FEMA and MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) and build back better than they were before."


The damage from the 2019 storm affected an area where homes were far more likely to be rented.


"A lot of the rental owners just decided to walk away," Smith said. "Some stayed and rebuilt, but a lot more didn't."


Another thing Southside had going for it is that the storm damage affected clusters of homes, which was more appealing to developers, including Smith, who also developed rental properties in the area after the storm.


"If you look at (the 2019 storm), it damaged one house here, another there," Smith said. "Developers generally want to work in areas where you can build several units. There's not much interest in building on one lot here and another somewhere else."



Stay or go?


On the morning after the 2019 storm, those whose properties were damaged had a decision to make: rebuild or relocate.


For Lorraine Shelton, who had moved into her home near the intersection of Waterworks Road and 14th Avenue in 1986, that decision came definitely and quickly.


The storm destroyed her roof and front porch. It could easily have been written off as a total loss.


"My brother-in-law told me, 'The house is paid off, so why would you want to rebuild when it would be easier to go to another place?'" she recalled. "I told him, 'Because this is my home.' When I moved here in 1986, I loved it. All the people around me were retirees, so it was quiet, nice. I just loved being here. I told him it was going to be rebuilt because this is mine."


Using the insurance money to rebuild, Shelton took out a loan to convert her garage into another bedroom, bathroom and laundry room.


"I guess the big thing was when you move, you don't really know what you are getting into," Shelton said. "Here, I know what I've got."


When the storm destroyed the home that Major Andrews III and his wife, Shirley, had lived in since 1997, the decision to stay had been made long before the storm.


The couple moved into a house on the corner of Shady Street and 14th Avenue in 1980 with plans to build a new home on that lot. They moved into the property next door and waited for the time to start on their new home.


At the time of the storm, dirt work on their new home next door had already started.


"The tornado didn't affect our decision at all," Shirley said. "We've known for years we were going to stay. We like the neighborhood."


The stay-or-go decision was more difficult for Sammie Lee, who had owned a gas station/convenience story on the corner or Waterworks Road and 14th Avenue for 15 years at the time of the storm.


"I really struggled with it, to be honest," Lee said. "For that whole first year, I just couldn't make up my mind about what to do. I prayed about it every night."


About a year ago, Lee said he had an epiphany.


"I realized, the whole reason I had been here those 15 years was to be a light in the area," Lee said. "Little stores like this mean a lot to a neighborhood. So I had to ask myself, 'What's changed?' I realized nothing had changed. It's been hard work rebuilding, with lots of paperwork and things to deal with. It would have been a lot easier to walk away. Hopefully, people in the neighborhood have been watching me work in that store the past year. Who knows? Maybe it has inspired some of them to stay and rebuild, too. I hope so."



Twice bitten, once shy


Farther west, at the intersection of Conway Road and Tuscaloosa Road, a large tract has been cleared but not developed.


It was the site of Refrigeration Supply Company of Columbus, but owner Dennis Jones doesn't plan to rebuild there, at least not anytime soon.


Given his history of that site, it's hard to blame him.


In November 2018, a car ran the stop sign at Gardner Boulevard and crashed into the showroom building, which caught on fire and became a total loss. Jones moved his showroom into his warehouse and bought another building next door to use as warehouse space.


He was only weeks away from relocating his business to its current location on Gardner Boulevard when the Feb. 23 storm hit, destroying both buildings on Conway, including a part of the building that his daughter operated as BJ's Dog Grooming.


Since then, his daughter has relocated her business to a building Jones owns on Wilcutt Block Road.


As for his property on Conway Road, Jones said he hasn't given much thought to its future.


"I've spent all my time trying to build back my business,'' he said. "But 2020 was our best year yet, so I'm grateful for that."


As for the future of the area affected by the 2019 tornado, Smith remains guardedly optimistic.


"I'm encouraged by some of the things I've seen," he said. "It's hard to say how it will turn out. There's a long way to go, but I do think over time we'll see things improve."


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]