A Journalist’s Notebook — Smithville

Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson

“Get in the ‘fraidy hole! Get in the ‘fraidy hole!”

Though the moment was serious, I couldn’t help but smile. I had only been in Mississippi two weeks, but I was already smitten with the local lexicon.

Years ago, I wondered what it would be like to move to Columbus and work for The Dispatch. And now I was hunkered in the “’fraidy hole” at the Starkville Board of Education, waiting for executive session to end or a tornado to blow us away, whichever came first. Glancing at the roiling clouds, my bets were on the tornado.

Thirty minutes later, barreling down Highway 82, I was certain of it. Rain sheeted sideways, and the trees blanched a preternatural green. Streetlights, dimmed by a multi-state power outage, swung crazily against the wind. The highway was a ribbon of utter desolation.

When I got back to the newsroom, the weather was fine, but the power was out across town, so everyone had gone home. Bored, I decided to roam the streets for local reaction.

I was standing in Kroger that night, photographing a tiki torch buying frenzy, when I got the text: “Tuscaloosa is gone.” A hot, sick feeling washed over me as I tried to make sense of the words.

The text was swiftly followed by an email from my editor at TIME Magazine, where I often freelance. He didn’t ask me to write a story; he asked if I was OK. With my mind still reeling, I appreciated the courtesy.

Community journalism is odd. You get so deeply entrenched. You breathe a place 24/7 until you know every pothole, every leaf. It hits a point where you can almost lift your head and smell changes in the wind, feel something moving within the city before you get the phone call. I knew Tuscaloosa that well, because for 19 years it was my territory.

For 19 years it was my home.

The text messages were rolling in thick and fast now, every one worse than the last.

“15th Street looks like a bomb went off.”

“The house is gone, but we’re alive.”

“People are screaming. People are dying. Help us.”

I looked up from my phone. A man hoisted a tiki torch in my direction and mock-toasted me with a six-pack of Budweiser. He had no clue. None of us had a clue. It wasn’t even raining in Columbus.

My friend’s words echoed: “Help us.”

Tuscaloosa was no longer my coverage area. People were hurting, but for the first time ever, I would not be there to serve.

Daylight broke to a changed world. Hundreds were dead. CNN was in Tuscaloosa saying people died because they didn’t have storm shelters. They alluded to trailers. The national media — of which I once was a part — was getting the South wrong.

When I could take it no more, I went to my Dispatch editor, uncertain of what he would say but unable to hold my tongue.

“I want to pitch a tornado story to TIME,” I said. “They don’t understand the South. People didn’t die because they were too poor or too stupid to take shelter. These were places — and people — that I loved.”

Permission was granted. Instead of going to Tuscaloosa though, I went to Smithville, a devastated corner of east Mississippi that had received little coverage.

I had heard that members of Smithville Baptist Church, which was flattened by the storm, were going to hold Sunday services outside. Most media outlets were focusing on the “why” of the tragedy, but I wanted to answer the question of “how.” How was this community coping? How were they able to worship and give thanks while literally standing in the ruins?

There are things for which journalism school doesn’t prepare you. Seeing baby clothing hanging from trees is one of them. Talking to people who have lost loved ones is another. It never gets easier. I often mill around the periphery for an hour or two before I ask the hard questions. I let intuition guide me as to when the time is right.

I walked among the people, digging through debris to help them find pictures. I joined hands with them and prayed. I stumbled into a crying woman, and I laid my head on her shoulder and cried with her, sharing her grief and expressing my own over friends taken by the storm in Tuscaloosa. I stood on broken glass and cried again while I photographed church members singing praises to God for his mercy and goodness.

I touched the peeled wall of a house and traced the letters with my fingertips: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I made eye contact with an old friend, Associated Press photographer Rogelio Solis, and we nodded and kept working. If we are in the same city, it’s usually something bad, but the South’s story must be told, and it should be told by Southerners.

I went back to Smithville several times. On my last trip, there was an unseasonable chill in the air, and a chalk-gray sky made the scoured landscape seem even more barren. American flags whipped in the breeze, and I tried to determine what the pile of rubble in front of me might have once been. A church? A business? A school? I asked a man who was wearing work gloves.

“This was my parents’ home,” he said. “My father died here.”

I said I was sorry, and I promised to get the story right. Then I lowered my camera and walked away.

Sometimes, getting the story right means knowing when to stop.