By Brigitte Williams
A week ago this Sunday, February 10th, residents of the Gulf Coast were busy with plans to enjoy friends, good food, fun and song during their last official parties before the start of Fat Tuesday the day before the Lent. For residents of south central Mississippi, those plans were in for an unwanted surprise.
Students at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, were enjoying a holiday for Mardi Gras with many headed south to New Orleans. Also in the Big Easy on Sunday, Executive Director of the South Central Chapter of the American Red Cross, Jay Huffstatler. Branch Office Coordinator Chase Munro and several volunteers were in Pensacola enjoying scuba lessons. IT Area Manager, Jeremy Vonover and wife were in Brookhaven, a few hours northwest of Hattiesburg at a wedding. Community Response Co-oordinator Chenita Wilson was enjoying family at home. Aware of a slight risk of severe weather, with expectation for a thunderstorm or two, Chenita periodically monitored storm watchers’ conversations just in case.
Hearing an increase in chatter from storm watchers, Chenita began alerting Red Cross Disaster Responders, Ann and David Loveless of Laurel, there was a need to respond to a tornado that had hit Marion County west of Hattiesburg. This tornado, an EF1, was one of four tornadoes- an EF1, two EF2 and the EF4 packing 170 mile per hour winds that buzzed through Hattiesburg and Pearl that would change lives across four counties.
“I was in the process of heading to the Chapter to do an expanded “call down of additional responders, when Ann called to say they could see a tornado on the ground.” Chenita instructed the Loveless to return to their home for safety. As she ended the call her husband Stokely yelled for Chenita, their four teenagers and a nephew to get into their hallway fast. He could hear the EF4 tornado headed their way. Soon all squeezed in the small space for twenty minutes until they were certain the storm was gone.
Help Can’t Wait
IT Manager Jeremy Vonover and wife were en route to Hattiesburg from Brookhaven ninety miles away. Not quite to Hattiesburg, he was close enough to see the funnel, that was a quarter mile wide, was on the ground. “I stopped driving because I was entering the storm’s hail core,” explained Jeremy. “I could tell it was hitting structures and that it was tracking along Highway 98.” Safety permitting, Jeremy soon resumed following the tornado’s track.
Arriving at the Chapter before law enforcement had put up barricades to tornado ravaged neighborhoods he was amazed at what he was seeing. “It was surreal seeing the destruction.” Jeremy’s adventure was not over. His wife, who had dropped him off at the chapter before continuing home, called to warn him another tornado was headed his way. Jeremy headed to the Chapter’s safe room for shelter. Two years ago, the Chapter received a grant from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) for a shelter adjacent to the chapter built to withstand tornadoes as strong as the EF4 that had just hit Hattiesburg. Fortunately for Jeremy he didn’t experience a second tornado.
Chase Munro and friends were west of Pensacola heading to Mississippi unaware of the tornado. “My grandparents called to inform me the Chapter was destroyed.” Knowing people would be in need of help, he increased his speed to get back as quickly as possible. His race was soon interrupted as a Georgia County Sherriff’s blue lights signaled the need to stop. After being informed of the reason of their haste, the sheriff provided official escort back to the Hattiesburg.
With her home escaping damage, Chenita knew she had to get to the office now. Only five minutes away, she was taken aback by the view even in the dark. “The emergency truck was in the street, trailers and cars were tossed. I called my manager, Susan Lamey in Biloxi crying and screaming, “It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone!” Hearing her cries, Jeremy appeared to aid in calming her worry. “He was telling me the same thing Susan was-calm down, just calm down,” she says now laughing a bit.
Here to Help Those In Need
Even through her shock, Chenita kicked into gear. “We had to get a shelter open fast. I wasn’t sure what the damage was, but I knew people were hurting and would need a place to stay.”
Branch Office Coordinator, Chase Munro was soon on the scene. He, Jeremy and Chenita navigated their way through the dark and debris to knock down a garage door to the chapter to get emergency shelter and nurse kits. “It was just amazing” explained Chenita at Red Cross volunteers showed up at the chapter ready to staff shelters. “I was and am just so proud of our volunteers who came!”
Only in New Orleans for an hour or so, Executive Director Jay Huffstattler’s phone rang around 6pm with news of the tornado’s devastation. Calling off any Mardi Gras plans, Jay arrived in Hattiesburg in less than two hours. “Like the others it was unreal; our truck was destroyed in the street with the lights on inside as if it had been driven; you could smell natural gas from broken lines.”
Grabbing everything they could, and with the help of volunteers, two hours after the storm hit, the Red Cross shelter at the Forrest 361 Shelter in Hattiesburg was open by 7pm. “It was a team effort. Responders raced to the American Red Cross Warehouse to bring cots, blankets and pallets of water, since ours were destroyed in our supply trailers. Disaster Responders with their emergency trucks and volunteers came in from around Mississippi. At 2am we were getting snacks and more supplies at Walmart,” laughs Chenita.
“Red Cross is here to serve those in need,” stated Jay. “Our team, with incredible support from the community and our volunteers across Mississippi, we were up and running as quickly as possible. With a full grasp of damage, we also have Red Crossers from around the country helping. We’re here to take care of south central Mississippi. The building is not the Red Cross”
With temporary offices in the American Red Cross Supply Warehouse in Hattiesburg, Jay promises after residents are cared for from these storms and floods from continuous rains, and time with a bit of reflection, the office at 606 Hutchinson Street will be rebuilt in the same place. Until then, because of energetic, committed workers, care and disaster relief provided by the South Central Chapter of the American Red Cross continues, uninterrupted.