In the wake of the devastation of the Webster County Tornado in April of 2011, Webster County has pushed past physical barriers and is booming with social and economic growth.
The mayor of Mathiston,Jimmy Carden, was a teacher and assistant principal of East Webster High School when the tornado hit. Carden said most of the damage in Mathiston was at Wood Junior College and took multiple weeks to clear the debris and make repairs so that East Webster High School could relocate there. Carden said the transition between school buildings did not have a negative impact on the education provided, and the students’ test scores were still good.
“We had very few problems during the transition, and things went well for us during that time,” Carden said. “We had all the facilities we needed to run the school properly, and the students seemed to enjoy the community college environment.”
Since the high school was rebuilt a few years later, Wood Junior College is for sale and currently houses 911, as well as hosts weddings at its chapel of memories and pageants in its reception halls.
While Carden said everything is structurally fixed at this point, aftermath of the storm remains in areas that still bear markers of severe tree damage and broken limbs.
Despite the destruction of the tornado, the community was not set back and is experiencing a peak in growth with one subdivision mostly filled out in Mathiston and two more developments in the process of starting construction.
“There is a major amount of growth in Mathiston right now. Per capita, we are probably growing about as fast as anywhere in the country,” Carden said.
Carden attributes the successful growth of the area both to the public school system in Webster County and the pervasive sense of community. The successful public schools in Webster County add a new appeal to people looking to raise families in Mississippi. Carden has had personal experience with the school system during his time in the community and believes that one of the biggest factors in the success of the public school system is the teachers.
“We have very high quality teachers. A very high percentage of the teachers have children in the community which makes their job very personal. My children graduated from East Webster. I have a grandson in the public schools now and two more to go,” Carden said. “Our teachers are a part of the community, and they work very hard to make it the best community and school system they can.”
Lauren Smith, a counselor at Eupora Elementary School, accredits the success of Webster County’s schools to the involvement and support of parents in the community who want their children to succeed. “The schools in Webster County have very good parental support. Some schools are not so lucky, but we do have amazing parents that volunteer to help,” Smith said. “Parents who make sure their kids go to school and eat breakfast before state testing.”
Smith also believes another attractive feature about the Webster County schools is their proximity to Starkville. The schools in Webster County are less than half an hour from Starkville, and since the cost of living in Webster County is 29.54 percent less than the national average, Smith said many families that work in Starkville commute from Webster County.
Smith said since East Webster High school was rebuilt, the new facilities have also been an attractive feature for prospective students and parents.“Due to the tornado, we got nicer facilities that worked to help enrollment go up. The new facilities helped the schools grow,” Smith said. “Our test scores are continually great also.Overall, these are just a few more reasons that make this area such a great place to live.”
While the school system is the primary factor for growth, it is also the sense of community that has been essential in the development of Webster County.
Smith was a teacher at East Webster High school during the tornado,and through her experiences she said she was able to witness the true depth of her community. “I saw how strong the community was in helping us. The owners of the college offered to let the school move there. Members of the community offered to clean the college up from tornado damage. I saw everyone come together. While the tornado was terrible, it showed how nice the people in our small community are.”
Carden explained how everyone is aware of what is going on in the community and helps each other. He believes it is this family environment that aided in the rebuilding after the tornado. “It is amazing how many people were out and helping after the tornado. We worked all the way through the night. Then when we got to a house down the road, they had prepared a breakfast for everyone who had been working.”
Regarding storm preparedness in the future, Carden said he feels there is a positive mentality around tornado awareness and that the community watches closely. There are currently two tornado sirens in the area, but the local government is working to receive a grant so that a third storm siren can be built. “We are very focused on being able to provide warnings and do what we can to make sure our community is safe and prepared for any future tornados or storms,” Carden said.
Webster County has proved that nothing, even the damage of a tornado, can stop them from caring for one another or growing as a community. “We have faced a lot of hardship, but none of that has stopped us in becoming a stronger and better community,” Carden said. “This is a very close knit community, and we intend to take care our young people by providing a quality education for them.”