Spencer Wiltshire got to his childhood home in Black Hawk, Mississippi, as quickly as he could. He knew his father had survived the March 23 tornado – part of a storm front that killed at least 25 people across the state – but he was more than a little shaken by what could have happened.
“It’s just scary to think that, you know. I’ve had to deal with the fact that my dad is older my entire life and he could leave at any moment, but this right here puts it into reality that anything can happen at any given moment,” Wiltshire said.
The massive tornado that carved a path of destruction in Mississippi hit the Wiltshire home in Carroll County hard. Wiltshire’s father was in the house alone and was getting ready for bed when the storm hit, toppling trees on the house and ripping away part of the bedroom wall. Wiltshire, who lives in Biloxi, said he and his wife had no idea his dad was in danger.
“It was at 9:40 at night, and I was sitting in my chair at the house. I got a phone call from my mom, saying, ‘Your dad has been in a tornado. His house is ruined. A tree fell on his bedroom.’ We didn’t know that all of this had happened at all,” Wiltshire said.
Wiltshire’s father was able to get out of the house safely and is now starting what could be a long and tedious process of working on insurance claims and deciding whether to rebuild.
The Wiltshire home sits just down the road from another point of loss in the Black Hawk community. Today there is nothing left of a one-time school building turned community center, simply known as “the schoolhouse” by local residents. The structure has been at the heart of cultural life in the town for decades, and long-time resident Rhonda Mitchell is among many grieving for this special place, which is now nothing more than a pile of debris.
“It’s going to be a loss to our community for right now until we decide what we want to do. But it’s just heartbreaking,” Mitchell said.
Locals who had come out to see what had happened to the center described what they called regular “singings” at the venue, essentially musical events that brought together people in the town. The Black Hawk Homemaker’s Club operated the center and made it available for wedding receptions, family reunions and even political rallies. Mitchell, who is a member of the group, said they would like to rebuild but will need outside funding to make that happen.
Rebuilding is also something members of the Black Hawk Independent Church will have to consider; the tornado wiped out the church and the parsonage. Former pastor Ricky Reece and his wife drove up from the Gulf Coast to help comfort his former parishioners.
“So many people have a special place in their hearts for churches like this. One of my good friends came out of this church, and he’s a pastor in the Tupelo area now, and this just devastated him. He grew up in this church, came to know the Lord in this church, got married in this church, and his parents are still here and are members of this church,” Reece said.
Reece’s wife, Maggie, mentioned that they, too, had been married at this church, and she was hoping to take home a keepsake. She found a piece of a stained-glass window – a token to remind her that light still shines through for Black Hawk.
Reporters Jordan Isbell and Claire Kenney contributed to this report.