Smithville, Mississippi will never be the same. It can't be. Not when at least 13 people here in this community of about 900 died Wednesday after a powerful tornado ripped through town, destroying nearly everything in its path.
After surveying the damage from the tornados across the Southeast on Thursday, the National Weather Service upgraded its estimate of the storm's fury to a rare EF-5 rating. The winds at the twister’s peak are estimated to have reached 205 miles an hour – which rates it as an EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. That is the highest level for tornado damage and the first EF-5 in Mississippi since March 3, 1966.
Phillip Lockhart was in his recently opened pizzeria with two of his employees when he looked out the window and saw the funnel cloud headed right at them from a few football fields away.
Thomas Wells / AP
An aerial of a single block of Smithville Ms., on Thursday shows how much destruction the small town took on Wednesday leaving at least 13 dead and the town destroyed.
Thinking there was no chance to survive inside the restaurant, they jumped in his truck and took off as fast as they could, with debris swirling all around them, slamming into the pickup.
In about 10 seconds, it was all over. And, in many respects, so was Smithville. The old Smithville.
"Never been so scared before," Lockhart said. "Our whole town is just gone."
City Hall. Gone. The police department. Obliterated. Grocery store, funeral home, scores of houses. Mountains of rubble.
The clean-up here will be extensive. Rebuilding will be a significant challenge, but one that residents are business owners like Lockhart say they're ready to tackle.
Butch Jones, left, and Sylvester Harrington, right, walk together in Waveland, Miss.
By Ron Mott, NBC News Correspondent
WAVELAND, Miss. – When you're counting the days, five years can seem like a really long time. And, yet, when you're trying to recover from arguably the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history – day by day – five years goes by like that, with far less progress than one might have hoped or expected.
That's the reality I found on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, and it took me a bit by surprise. I was certain they would be farther along. I was wrong.
While so much has been done to recover from the knockout punch that Hurricane Katrina delivered, there is still so much work unfinished – if it's even started, in many instances.
Having spent a lot of time reporting from here over the past five years, I was struck by how the once-brisk pace of rebuilding appears to have stalled. Empty lots are plentiful, and the sound of circular saws and hammering no longer fills the background as much as it used to.
Some blame the economic slowdown, others the insurance companies, and still others cite new building requirements along the coast that simply make it more expensive and risky to return.
Nevertheless, people continue coming back to the place they call home, undeterred by the obstacles and passage of time. People fortunate enough to afford the costs of rebuilding were typically the first to get back on their feet. And then there are those fortunate enough to find organizations and individuals willing to help them stand again.
So much generosity Sylvester Harrington Jr. and his family here are among the lucky ones. Floodwaters poured into their one-story ranch-style home on Aug. 29, 2005, forcing Harrington and two relatives to the attic to survive.
When the water receded, the Harringtons were left with a mess they didn't have the means to restore.
But one day Harrington met a gentleman named Butch Jones, who worked for a group called Mission on the Bay – a faith-based joint venture that sent armies of volunteers up and down the Gulf Coast, giving families like the Harringtons free labor to help them pick up the pieces and put their lives back together.
In the Harrington's case, everything was free – nails, siding, drywall, paint, flooring, you name it. There was so much generosity, Harrington said, that it often left him speechless and in tears, as this was the only way, he added, his family could return.
"I wouldn't have been finished yet," Harrington said, "because I didn't have the capital. Our insurance company gave us $1,700. That's what we got paid.”
The Harringtons, like many coastal residents, did not have flood insurance. He said his insurance company wrote a check for minor roof damage caused by the wind.
Good things coming out of tough times Jones, Harrington’s connection to Mission on the Bay, also lost his home in Gulfport to the storm. But, he says he also found a gift in the aftermath of Katrina – a wife.
Elizabeth Wheatley was in charge of the outreach ministry for Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi, which organized Mission on the Bay’s massive volunteer drive that attracted helping hands from all over the world.
Through the dirty, exhausting work of mucking out houses and starting over, Jones and Wheatley uncovered love.
And while they will soon leave the area for a new life in northern Mississippi – with Mission on the Bay ending as the fifth anniversary of Katrina is marked – the couple say they are leaving their hearts here.
"It could be sad to say that we can't continue, but we look back at the almost 800 families that we've rebuilt their homes or we built new homes for," Jones said. "Although there is a great deal that's left to be done, the people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast – with the help of thousands upon thousands of people – are resilient. And they are a hope-filled people. And, they're not going to be stopped."
The recovery continues, of course. Churches are moving into new sanctuaries. City halls and police departments are only now opening the doors to their new homes. Road detours are everywhere, but damage infrastructure is at last being repaired.