Laurel Leader-Call

‘Glade tornado was like this’ 

By Mark Thornton

Man who cleaned up after that twister hit by second F4 in county history

There are only two F4 tornadoes recorded in Jones County history, and Mike Kelley was directly involved with both of them.

He went to Glade to work on the cleanup crew after much of that community was demolished by a tornado that struck in February 1987. Thirty-three years later, the damage came to him. His homeplace in the Matthews Community looked like a war zone, as one family member described it, five days after the twister struck.

“The Glade tornado was like this,” Kelley said while surveying the damage all around the brick house that he and his wife Diane have lived in for 46 years.

He was working for Reeves Construction back when that company got the contract to clean up after what had been considered the worst twister in county history. The F4 monster that hit his home on Easter evening was the widest in state history, at 2.25 miles, and the third-widest on record in the country. Only seven F4 tornadoes have been recorded in the state in the last 20 years.

The Glade tornado killed six people, destroyed the community’s elementary school and severely damage Northeast Jones High School. Four people were killed in the one that ripped through Hebron, Big Creek, Calhoun, Soso, Matthews and Moss. Kelley was able to put things in perspective.

“Other people got it a lot worse,” he said. “We’re still here.”

Kelley led a delegation of government officials — acting Secretary Chad Wolf of the Department of Homeland Security, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, Gov. Tate Reeves, FEMA and MEMA officials — on a quick tour of his property Friday afternoon. The listened to stories of survival and reassured residents before a press conference announcing that President Trump had declared the devastated area a major disaster.

As chainsaws and heavy machinery revved in the distance while people worked in the background, Reeves said he was overwhelmed by the scope of the damage he’d witnessed in two trips to storm-ravaged Pine Belt, but he was buoyed by the attitude of the victims.

“This is the spirit of Mississippi,” Reeves said. “We took a punch in the mouth, but we have family helping family, Mississippians helping Mississippians. Some people who lost everything are here helping others.

“We’ve been knocked down, but we’re going to get back up and come back bigger and stronger than ever.”

Reeves thanked Wolf for “stepping up for Mississippi” to get President Trump to declare the area a major disaster.

“That will expedite help to Mississippi,” Reeves said. 

The president’s declaration will unlock individual assistance for storm victims, insured and uninsured, and public assistance to reimburse local government agencies, Wolf said. It also means that temporary housing could be made available for victims. At least 363 homes in Jones County had some damage, Jones County EMA Director Paul Sheffield reported.

“We’ll be here long after the cameras are gone,” Wolf told residents, adding that he is from Brandon.

The storm was historic in nature, MEMA Director Greg Michel said, not only with the width, but with two longtrack tornadoes following almost the same path about a half-hour apart. The first one, which did the most damage in Jones and Jasper counties, traveled 68 miles and had wind speeds that reached 190 mph. The second was an F3 that struck part of northwestern Jones County and Jasper County on its 82.5-mile path, with wind speeds of 150 mph and a maximum width of 1 mile. In all, 20 counties were affected by at least nine tornadoes and 14 people died as a result of them.

“More lives could have been lost if triage stations like the one here had not been set up immediately,” he said. 

This the first time in memory that anywhere in the state has been under concurrent disaster declarations, he said, referring to the one to combat the spread of coronavirus.

“It’s humbling to see you fight through this pandemic and now this,” he said. 

Reeves noted that it is “very unusual” to be able to get a major disaster declaration as quick as Trump signed this one. The tornado that got that quick response was out of the ordinary, too, he noted.

“It’s not unusual to get tornadoes in April,” Reeves said. “What we’re not used to is tornadoes that stay on the ground 50 to 60 to 70 miles. It caused extreme damage.”

Preliminary figures from MEMA show upward of $10.5 million damage, mostly to residential property, but that figure is expected to increase, officials said.

Kelley and his wife restore antique cars, and they’re ready to restore their residence and help family and friends do the same.

“It means a lot knowing they’re thinking about us,” Kelley said. “We really appreciate it.”

Wolf said he was sent to the area by President Trump to let them know they have the administration’s support.

And Kelley, wearing a “Trump 2020” cap, made Reeves laugh when he told him that the president has his support, too.

“If you talk to (Trump),” Kelley said, “you let him know that a little short man down in Jones County is behind him 100 percent.”