South Central Mississippi Chapter in Hattiesburg Continues Uninterrupted Emergency Care

February 19, 2013

By Brigitte Williams

IMG_20130214_080418_551 Chenita Wilson and Jay Vonover at Chapter Sign 02142013

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.

Disaster Alert: Explosion in Mississippi

July 20, 2012

Disaster Alert

Mississippi– A gas explosion prompted the evacuation of residents within a half mile of the affected area in Wayne County on Thursday.

The East Central Mississippi Chapter communicated with local Emergency Management, deployed team members, dispatched an Emergency Response Vehicle and provided canteen support for emergency responders.

Story: Red Cross is here for the long haul

May 23, 2011

This story is written by Red Cross volunteer Allen Crabtree.

Mississippi Floods 2011

Not since the Great Flood of 1927 have the Mississippi River and its tributaries risen so high nor spread so wide. Tens of thousands of residents from Illinois to Louisiana have been forced from their homes and entire communities have been inundated. Flood waters will not recede for several weeks, into June. The Mississippi flooding was preceded by the deadliest tornado outbreak since 1925 that killed hundreds across seven states and demolished countless homes and businesses.

The Red Cross has been there from the beginning of these huge natural disasters, helping those impacted by the tornadoes and flooding, and will continue to be there while the waters recede and people return to their homes and a normal life.

The Mississippi floods are a disaster of epic proportions, but they have also been a disaster moving in slow motion. The rivers have risen slowly and waters have relentlessly covered homes and fields at a deliberate pace. People and communities have had time to react, moving their possessions to higher ground and evacuating in an orderly manner with thankfully little loss of life.


Photos: Red Cross Responds in Mississippi

May 5, 2011



See entire 2011 Spring Tornadoes set on Flickr >>

Photo: Mississippi Storm Response

April 5, 2011

Japan Earthquake 2011

Photo Credit : East Central Mississippi Chapter Volunteer

Dempsey Brady and his family gathered in the hallway as the storms from Monday night ripped through the Ellisville, MS area. They were safely in the hallway when the storm tore the roof off of their home. They were very thankful for the Red Cross visiting with them to meet their immediate emergency needs.

Disaster Alert: Severe Weather Reported in Southern States

April 5, 2011

Disaster Alert

Louisiana – Severe storms passed throughout the state and destroyed homes, damaged others and caused power outages that affected thousands of residents on Monday.

The Southeast Louisiana and Acadiana Area Red Cross Chapters deployed Disaster Action Team members, placed a shelter on stand-by, and assisted disaster victims as needed.


Mississippi – Severe storms damaged homes and buildings, leaving thousands of residents throughout the state without power on Monday.

Disaster Action Team members from the Northeast Mississippi Chapter opened a shelter and provided assistance to evacuees as needed.


Tennessee – Strong storms destroyed or damaged dozens of homes and left more than 100,000 residents without power throughout the central portion of the state on Monday.

The Nashville Area Chapter deployed Disaster Action Team members, opened a shelter, placed others on stand-by and staffed local Emergency Operations Center.

The Greater Chattanooga Area Chapter staffed the county Emergency Operations Center and is monitoring situation to provide response, if necessary.


Kentucky – Severe storms passed throughout the state and destroyed homes, damaged others, downed trees and power lines on Monday.  One reported injury.

All Chapters in the affected areas, including the Louisville Area and Bluegrass Chapters, deployed Disaster Action Team members and provided assistance to victims as needed.


North Carolina – Severe weather passed throughout the state damaging homes, downing trees and causing power outage to almost 130,000 residents.

The Rutherford County and Asheville-Mountain Area chapters are monitoring the situation and continuing to do Disaster Assessment and provide assistance as needed.

Story: Red Cross a Blessing

March 10, 2011

This story is written by Tamica Smith-Jeuitt, a Red Cross worker from the Mississippi chapter.

Mississippi Tornado, March 2011
Gloria Payton and her mother Ethel Stamps are survivors of the tornado that touched down in Hinds County, Mississippi on March 8, 2011.

One day before her mother’s 84th birthday, Gloria Payton is counting her blessings after surviving a tornado and for the Red Cross workers giving her family food. Payton, her mother and two other relatives were at home when they heard a sound similar to a train and strong winds in the middle night. When the noise stopped, they were in the dark, with a leaking roof, and snapped pine trees scattered across their yard in Edwards, MS.

Payton said she never called the Red Cross for help and was surprised when their emergency response vehicle drove up to her house shortly after the storm.

“All I knew was they had to be here to help and I certainly appreciated that,” said Payton.


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