February 11, 2013 10:18:07 AM
HATTIESBURG -- Heavy clouds blanket the skies in Hattiesburg today following a Sunday night tornado, but a steady rain has not dampened cleanup efforts on the University of Southern Mississippi campus, which took a direct hit.
Residents have already started the long process of removing trees, patching roofs and giving thanks for their survival. More than a dozen in the state were injured.
Columbus native Ann Marie Chilcutt, 20, is a 2010 graduate of Heritage Academy and a communications studies major at USM. This morning, she and other residents met city officials at Shipley Do-Nuts on Hardy Street to organize salvage and recovery.
Though Chilcutt lives in a residence hall less than a half mile from the worst damage, she said she, like most of the students, was off-campus at the time thanks to Mardi Gras holidays today and Tuesday.
She and friends were driving back from New Orleans when the storm hit, arriving at the scene roughly 10 minutes after the tornado swept through town.
The power was out, but headlights illuminated the debris littering the road, with the darkness making the scene even more surreal.
She said it has been comforting to see how quickly the community has banded together to regain some semblance of normal.
"It's really cool to come to a college where the community is as strong as it is," Chilcutt said. "It's good, it's comfortable, it's like Columbus -- it's home. It's a sad day, but it's a good day to be a part of."
Emergency management officials are still getting a better handle on the damage that stretched across several counties.
Late Sunday, at least 10 people were injured in surrounding Forrest County and three were hurt to the west in Marion County, but they weren't aware of any deaths.
Hattiesburg resident Charlotte Walters, 61, and her daughter Heather Walters, 30, were moving buckets and bowls around inside their house today trying to catch water pouring through holes in the roof. The women were at home along with Charlotte's husband when a relative called and said a tornado was headed their way.
"It sounded like Katrina," said Charlotte Waters, who lives in a neighborhood also hit by the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast.
Besides holes in the roof of her one-story wood frame house, a falling tree had damaged the side and another one collapsed on her carport, denting and breaking windows in three cars there.
"I'm blessed. At least I don't have one of those in my house," Charlotte said, pointing to a tree that had fallen onto a neighbor's house next door.
Marie Key, 68, was hoping to salvage what she could Monday morning.
She was alone in her one-story brick house when the storm hit Sunday. She heard the tornado coming and dove under a kitchen table.
At least three trees hit her house, which she said was also damaged during Hurricane Katrina and another storm in 1998. The fallen trees blocked the front and back doors and a neighbor had to pull the limbs away so she could get out. She had a bruised forehead Monday and some other scratches but was otherwise uninjured.
"I'm luck, I know that," Key said fighting back tears as she spoke.
"I'm kind of past the 'poor me' part of it. This is so widespread and it's happening in so many places. I'm going to be all right."
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said it appears a single tornado caused the damage in Forrest, Marion and Lamar counties. Hundreds of homes are damaged in Forrest County, along with a couple dozen in the other two.
Flynn said the sheer scope of the damage was slowing officials' assessment.
"The problem is, it was so strong that there's so much debris that there's a lot of areas they haven't been able to get to yet," he said.
On campus, trees were snapped in half around the heavily damaged Alumni House where part of the roof was ripped away. Windows in a nearby building were blown out, and heavy equipment worked to clear streets nearby in a heavy rain after the worst of the weather had passed.
The university released a statement saying no one was hurt but that it was under a state of emergency, and anyone away from campus should stay away until further notice.
East of campus, 47-year-old Cindy Bullock was at home with her husband and dog when she heard the tornado coming. They ran to a hallway and covered their heads. It wasn't long before the windows in the kitchen and bedroom exploded. The storm stripped all the shingles off the roof and left holes in it, while knocking over a large pine tree in the yard.
After dark, the Bullocks were trying to arrange their stuff inside so it wouldn't get wet from the dripping water.
"I just looked out the window and I heard the rumbling. It sounded like a train. We ran to the hall, and the kitchen windows and the windows in the bedroom exploded. It happened pretty fast," she said.
There were large trees blocking the road all through her neighborhood, and several of the houses were hit by falling trees. Her friend was staying with them after the friend's apartment took a direct hit from a falling tree.
Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee says 10 or 15 people were injured by the tornado that slammed Hattiesburg and other parts of the county -- but none of the injuries was serious.
"Most of our injuries have been walking wounded," he said.
To the west, Marion County emergency director Aaron Greer said three injuries had been reported in the community of Pickwick, about seven miles south of Columbia. Two people were taken to hospitals, but the third didn't have the injury examined, he said.
Greer said one mobile home was destroyed, three other structures have major damage and several have minor damage.
On Sunday night, John and Katherine Adams were cleaning up around their one-story white house where the storm punched holes in the roof, busted windows and completely destroyed the back porch. The couple was at home with their 7- and 3-year-old daughters when the tornado passed next to their house.
All through the neighborhood, houses and vehicles were damaged by falling trees.
"We're safe, and that's all that matters," said Katherine Adams, 46.
John Adams, who's in the building supply business, said he was surprised to see broken boards that appeared to be from new construction in his yard because there are no homes being built nearby.
"We've got stuff around here; I don't even know where it came from," he said.
Dispatch news editor Carmen K. Sisson contributed to this story.