Pine Belt residents remember tornado a year after the storm

Ace Hardware in Petal then and now.
Ace Hardware in Petal then and now.
Ogletree House at USM then and now.
Ogletree House at USM then and now.
Westminster Presbyterian Church then and now.
Westminster Presbyterian Church then and now.

HATTIESBURG, MS (WLOX) - A year ago, a giant twister tore a path of destruction through Lamar and Forrest counties.  One of the hardest hit areas of the storm was USM's Hattiesburg campus.  The school of music there suffered from the first direct hit.  Dr. Miles is the director of the school and says the day is still fresh in his memory.

"Because of my background, coming from Oklahoma, I take these kinds of things very seriously.  So, I had the television on and I'm watching the weather.  The moment they said tornado down in Lamar County, I called up here," said Miles.

The safety of the students was his first priority. Miles' daughter was in a building on campus that he knew was a potential target. Fortunately the building had a basement, and that's where the students huddled together.

"I said, you need to stay there, the tornado is going to hit Southern Miss.  And she said, she said, 'ok,' and she said, 'I gotta go daddy,' and the tornado hit at that moment," Miles recalled.

The storm completely destroyed the Jazz classrooms on the edge of campus and then damaged performance stages and several other buildings. Miles said he is thankful no one was hurt, and now the school is seeing some of the benefits of restoration.

"We're in full recovery mode now.  All of the repairs and renovations from the tornado damage are now in the process of taking place," said Miles.

This restoration was a $4.5 million project that wouldn't have happened had the school not been damaged. According to Miles, plans include brand new classrooms, offices, and two completely renovated auditoriums.

Students and faculty were shaken by this brush with disaster. But, Dr. Miles said the University was quick to return to as much normalcy as possible.

Once the tornado finished its destruction on USM's campus, the next thing in its path was Westminster Presbyterian Church. The 170 mile per hour winds tore through the church's walls and left gaping holes in the building.

Parkway Heights Methodist, a neighboring church, is now sharing its sanctuary for services while Westminster undergoes an extensive rebuild. Marcus Miller is the superintendent over the construction.

"We've been on it since the storm, doing a lot of cleaning, a lot of repairing. Building's about 90 percent back along the way," said Miller.  Although the damage was massive, the building is coming back better than it was.

"This has really turned out to be something positive for the church, and the community, as well.  It's nice to see it rebuild, old things come down, new things go up," said Miller.

Just a couple of miles away,  Bud Kirkpatrick and his wife Virginia barely made it out of the storm alive. They watched their home of 50 years get ripped apart as they rode it out in their bathroom.

"We hadn't been settled too long before it came by.  And it was a roar like anybody every said it is.  And all we could get out was 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," said Kirkpatrick.

The entire back of the house was torn off letting in rain and other debris. Now the couple is moving into a new place and picking up the pieces of that terrible night with gratitude.

"You say, well, you know, you lost your house, you lost your rent house, and damaged another rent house, and lost your van? Yeah well, we were blessed. We had a good dry place to go to."

Many others across the area were also counting their blessings once the storm blew over. The tornado initially touched down in Lamar County just west of Hattiesburg. From there, it traveled almost 23 miles east, where it finally dissipated over Petal.

Ed Crockett and his wife Jean were living in a subdivision in west Hattiesburg when the storm came through.

"I was thinking, 'I just hope the room I'm in stays up, you know, good enough to keep it from falling in," said Crockett.

The memory of his house crumbling still haunts him.

"We were saved by the grace of God, by being in the bathroom, it was a safe place. It never did get damaged," said Crockett.

A sense of normalcy would be welcome. But Crockett says that may never happen.

"We're just anxious to get back to what our original home is, but nothing will ever be the same because the neighborhood is completely changed," he said.

The tornado changed things for so many. One of the last places to be hit before the twister fizzled out was the Ace Hardware in Petal. Manager Kenneth Laird said he got a call from his sister-in-law right after the tornado barreled through.

"She said that a tornado had hit Ace Hardware and that it was gone," he said.

Laird had to relocate the store just down the street, which has been a bit of a challenge. But he's looking forward to the benefits of a new building.

"It's a blessing in disguise, you know. The good Lord works in mysterious ways and it was bad, but we're getting all new stuff. You know, a bigger, nicer building, and everything's new," said Laird.

At the twister's strongest point, it was almost a mile wide and categorized as a highly destructive EF4. Amazingly, no one was killed and only a few injuries were reported.

As members of the community look back over the past year, safety is something they can be thankful for.

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