Coming full circle now has real meaning to American Red Cross Mississippi volunteers Mitchell and Hazel Rodgers after Sunday’s historic tornado destroyed their West Hattiesburg neighborhood.
Since suffering a stroke this past fall, Hazel finds herself spending more time in her bed resting than she cares to, as well as her husband who has health concerns that prevent them from being active volunteers.
“We were both in bed Sunday afternoon when the sirens began to sound,” states the soft spoken Hazel. “I hate to admit it, but after hearing sirens for what seemed like an hour, I decided nothing was going to happen.” One of her daughters, Melissa Taylor realized it was suddenly dark outside. Opening the door, she frantically screamed “Momma it’s a tornado!” as she could now see the three quarter mile wide EF-4 tornado, packing winds of 170mph headed towards their home four blocks from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Melissa quickly ran to her parent’s room, quickly placing an oxygen mask on her father unable to leave his bed. She then grabbed her son Taylor, 13, running to the bathroom where she threw him into the tub, as she laid on top of him.
“The house began to vibrate, “stated Hazel. “My bed began to shake so violently it knocked me out of the bed to the floor.” All survived amazingly without injury, but the home was destroyed.
Her other daughter Mitchellyn Rodgers, who lives in the same neighborhood, was also seeking safety, racing with her 13 year old son Thomas and Makalynn, 10 to their bathroom, as all three held on to each other in the shower.
Relieved to have survived the storm, the emotional aftermath is difficult for the family. “I haven’t slept since the tornado, it’s been hard,” stated Hazel. Her husband Mitchell was hospitalized initially after the storm, and is now with her.
Without a home, the couple ironically are safe in a Hattiesburg Red Cross shelter; a place quite familiar to the two from decades of disaster response to hurricanes and tornadoes across the country including Mitchell’s unexpected thrust into the national spotlight as a Red Cross spokesperson in Miami for the arrival of numerous boats with refugees from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor in 1980 known as the Mariel boatlift.
Red Cross is more than a place to these volunteers. “We married at the Red Cross office in Hattiesburg June 20, 1974. Unfortunately it’s destroyed by the tornado,” stated Hazel. Babs Faulk, then Executive Director of the South Central Chapter, served as Hazel’s maid of honor. “Salvation Army Chaplain George Prince married us.” She laughs recalling it was his first wedding to officiate.
“I’ve never been through a tornado,” explains Hazel. “I’ve always been the one to help others who lost everything. I’ve held hands to those who lost brothers and sisters and children, I’ve always been the one to help others.”