Laurel Leader-Call

Gone With The Wind

By Jack Hammett
Apr 15, 2020 Updated 18 hrs ago

Moses held out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind. It blew all night and turned the sea into dry land. The water was divided. Exodus 14:21

“We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.”

That was one of the last things Gov. Tate Reeves told the public during an appearance at First Baptist Church of Soso on Tuesday.

About 36 hours earlier, a tornado had torn off the building’s steeple. The storm had a wind speed of almost 200 mph and traveled about 50 miles, wiping out homes and businesses. The press conference Tuesday was a filmic marker of the Before and After. 

Surrounding the governor stood buildings of the After, all blasted windows and splintered wood. The masked observers, those who listened as Reeves espoused messages of hope, now populate a near-future they could not have divined. Before is a memory, and Soso is its afterimage.

“Six months ago, I don’t think you’d see hundreds and hundreds of people out here with masks on,” Reeves said. “So yes, (the tornado) is complicating things. The fact that the coronavirus exists is complicating the tornado, and the tornado is complicating everything we’re doing to stop the spread of the virus.”

Press and broadcasters stopped and asked questions of each storm victim Reeves spoke personally with — that included a woman named Susie Carmichael. Standing next to her close friend Jessie Smith, she wore a red sweater and a mask.

The 73-year-old appeared to resist the downward pull of grief, even after the death of her sister Sara Ward, 81, on Sunday. Their houses had been at the epicenter of the Easter storm.

“I’m holding up real good,” she said. “My house is still standing, but my sister’s is not.”

That night, Carmichael walked a mile to find her sister, climbing over trees and other debris with her niece. First responders were hard-pressed to reach her; a drive through Soso’s outskirts will show just why that is. The forests looked as if some great thing had bitten off the tops of all the trees, all at once.

Later, at her sister’s property, Carmichael pointed out the spot where Ward was finally found. Ward’s body had been beneath a pile of tree limbs, just outside where the bathroom would have been.

“It looked like she might have been in the bath tub,” Carmichael said. “The tub was laying over there, and she was laying over here, face down.”

Carmichael said she’s doing all right for the moment — but the grief may hit her later. Reeves commented that day on her and the community’s continued fight to keep moving and to keep helping one another.

“We know the strength and resiliency of people from Mississippi,” Reeves said. “We rally around one another, we fight for one another, we put our differences aside and we come together for the betterment of the people in this state.”

The presser’s discussion oscillated between the tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic. Reeves spoke of jobs, how this second disaster, unprecedented for the community, further dampens the hopes that normalcy will soon return.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “We’ve had 90,000 Mississippians file unemployment insurance, many of whom have never filed in their lives and who never wanted to file. Not only do we have a public health crisis, but we have an economic crisis.”

As one unidentified survivor put it, how can Mississippians shelter at home when they no longer have one? The short answer, of course, is that there is no answer. Not yet.

“We believe shelter-in-place orders have to be temporary,” Reeves said. “They have to be short-lived. Because people cannot stay in their houses for weeks and weeks, and months and months on end, because if they do, it ultimately leads to more challenges.”

Reeves yielded the floor to U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

“I want you all to know we are here for you, and we care,” she told the public. “To have coronavirus on top of this, these are truly uncertain times. Together, we’re going to rise above this, but please stay safe and please realize this virus is still going on during this tragedy.”

Jessie Smith, a friend of Susie Carmichael and a retired Soso Elementary teacher, kept her mask on for the duration of the press conference. She didn’t remove it until she was back at her house, which is now crumbling. Much of the roof is in the yard.

Smith has bad knees and sometimes struggled to step over piles of rubble. She grabbed a piece of her house from the ground to use as a walking stick. “Now I’m good. I’m like Moses,” she said and laughed.

And she was, by acting as a guide. The first step through Smith’s front door would be jarring for anyone: One might wonder the point of closing the door anymore, as little remained of the ceiling, windows and many walls.

The devastation appeared endless. Her gazebo, her cars, her two utility houses lay flattened. But Smith remained cheerful, bearing a hopeful smile on an otherwise pristine morning. Around back, she and her family stayed in a generator-powered guest house.

“Look at all the trees,” she said, referring to those piled around the guest house. “They each fell all around this house. Not one of them fell on it.”

From a car window, Smith pointed out every single house she rode past. Each resident was her neighbor, distant or otherwise, and she clearly knew and cared for all of them. She knew exactly where to find an overturned tractor-trailer. She talked to another neighbor about a tarp guy from Alabama. She stopped at Ward’s former house to check in with Carmichael.

“It’s like a battlefield,” Smith said amid the ruin. “It’s all gone with the wind. Gone with the wind…” Carmichael had just shown Ward’s final resting place, the bath tub, the living room, the bedroom.

Something like a red sea had been parted. The grass was dry, and the weather was fair and brilliant.

“The sun is back, and the way is clear,” Smith said.