This year marked the third anniversary of a disaster, when an EF-4 tornado devastated Hattiesburg on Feb. 10, 2013. The storm tore through the area, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and injuring dozens of people.
The storm hit hardest in midtown Hattiesburg, which includes the campus of The University of Southern Mississippi. Since 2013, the city and university have made significant progress to recovery.
The tornado touched ground for over 22 miles. Students and faculty returned to campus. Classes resumed after the massive twister hit at 5:03 p.m. and made its way through Hattiesburg and Petal.
President Barack Obama declared Mississippi a federal disaster area following the tornado.
The storm rampaged through Hattiesburg’s main streets and neighborhoods, defaced homes, commercial buildings and USM campus structures. Businesses surrounding the university have advanced in restoration and reconstruction, and the university has continued in its efforts to recovery. The tornado even destroyed jobs, as it laid waste to some of Hattiesburg’s businesses.
Jack Daniels, general manager of Papa John’s across from USM, said he personally laid eyes on a tornado.
“We had delivery drivers out at the time, so we had to tell them to not come back,” Daniels said. “We all got in the freezer, and as everything blew away. It sounded like a bomb going off. ”
Daniels worked at Papa John’s on Highway 49 at the time and said the disaster affected his employment.
“When Papa John’s that was on Highway 49 blew away, I lost my job,” Daniels said. “I was unemployed for two weeks. My company relocated us to different stores. During the two weeks of being unemployed, I helped my friends clean up and recover.”
Chelsea Miller, a waitress at IHOP across from the university, was left unemployed for six months following the tornado.
“My boyfriend also worked here, and he lost his job, so that put us both out of work, and we had two children,” Miller said.
Building back businesses was not the only form of recovery for those who experienced the devastating twister. Hattiesburg residents and their loved ones are still recovering from the emotions and memories of that day. Miller reminisced about her experience the day of the tornado and like others, had to recover from the emotional scarring. “I was scared because I had never been in an actual tornado or a big storm,” Miller said. “I was scared, crying and emotional. It took me forever to figure out what I was going to do with my unemployment […] I was thankful for being alive, really.”
Three years later, Miller said she watches the news so she can prepare for any storm.
“It gets better every day,” Miller said. “I used to complain about doing this and that, but now that I get to come back, I thank God about having a job.”
Bop’s Frozen Custard, previously located on Hardy Street, suffered damage from the tornado. Bop’s relocated to the former Sports Laundry building behind Subway across from USM.
Bop’s owner Chris Martin said although the building endured nearly $20,000 in damages, the business recovered soon after the tornado.
“I have insurance, so it wasn’t that bad of a recovery effort,” Martin said. “We had more damage from the tornado than Katrina to the actual building.”
His business’ speedy recovery was no comparison to the experiences of the staff. Martin said three of his employees and two customers crowded in a bathroom for protection as the tornado ripped its way through the area.
“We opened back up five or six days after the storm, but there were two days the police wouldn’t even let us in the building,” Martin said.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree said the city is improving every day.
“Katrina was in 2005, and this was 2013, so I think we have done well dealing with the effects in an eight-year span of two devastating storms,” DuPree said.
He said Hattiesburg recovered from the storm so quickly because city officials were prepared.
Schools, including USM, remained closed until Feb. 14, 2013. When it reopened, USM moved classes that were previously held in the eight damaged buildings.
“Almost all of the campus on the south side, the south half there along Hardy Street and of course, the corner of [Highway] 49, that was impacted by the tornado,” said Chris Crenshaw, associate vice- president for facilities, planning and management at USM. “Hardy Street was blocked off for a week or so, you couldn’t even get down Hardy Street, the trees were everywhere.”
The 170 mph tornado reached a near-one mile width during its path through Hattiesburg. As a result of the tornado, 192 homes were destroyed and 338 suffered major damage. The tornado injured 82 people and caused damage amounting to $38.525 million.
“Everything was gone down through to Lake Byron and you could tell where the tornado had actually spun the rose garden, that’s one thing I did notice when I looked that it looked like a crop circle in the rose garden,” said Loren Erickson, superintendent of campus landscapes for Southern Miss.
Erickson said at the time, she was trying to keep track of what was happening.
“We did a little over $20 million worth of renovation and construction work,” Crenshaw said.