Five years later: Leaders reflect on deadly Columbus tornado

COLUMBUS, Miss. (WCBI) – February 23, 2024, marked five years since a destructive tornado tore through parts of Columbus leaving millions of dollars of destruction in its wake.

“It was total devastation throughout the north side of Lowndes County down through Tuscaloosa Road and on into Alabama and it was a lot of major damage. Homes were destroyed, completely destroyed. Powerlines were everywhere. There were some trees down but the most thing I saw was debris from homes and businesses. There were so many homes and businesses that were destroyed and we did have two deaths in that storm,” said Lowndes County Emergency Management Director Cindy Lawrence.

She was on the front lines helping with relief. She said the event hit close to home for her.

“One of the things that was personal for me was because it was a neighborhood I grew up in and I knew a lot of the elderly people who still lived in that neighborhood. And it was so overwhelming for me to just walk the street to see the devastation and to see the look on a lot of those people’s faces. It was heartwrenching for me to talk to them and try to work with them, but I knew my job and I had to do whatever I had to do to help them get to sort of where they were the day before the storm happened,” said Lawrence.

To make matters worse, many of those hardest hit didn’t have home insurance.

“Another thing is, a lot of people in the neighborhoods did not have insurance and that is very heartwrenching because you do not get the immediate assistance that you need when you don’t have insurance. You are kind of on a waiting list,” said Lawrence.

Although there is only so much you can do to prepare for a disaster, Lawrence said Emergency Management tries their best to be there and be prepared.

“We do three exercises a year and we had done an exercise on the tornado that September. And because we are no stranger to tornadoes here in Lowndes County, we are much better prepared for the disaster. As I tell people, we cannot stop the storm but we can be prepared and be there to assist the community when a storm hits and that is exactly what we did,” said Lawrence.

But Emergency Management didn’t handle relief on its own. The community stepped up to help.

Lee Burdine was part of the United Methodist Church’s Committee on Relief. He recounted how the community came together to help.

“We applied for a grant to the United Methodist Church, the UMCOR group, and they awarded us almost $1.4 million. We had volunteers from around the community and from around the country that came in. And then from there we just started rebuilding homes. We probably had 27 homes and lots of roofs. And other groups also participated in that. It was so gratifying to see the community come together and help on that,” said Burdine.

Local response to the tornado also gave rise to Community Recovery of Lowndes County, a local organization that responds in times of disaster.

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