Hattiesburg-Petal Tornado 01-21-17

William Carey hit hard by tornado

DIRECT HIT – The William Carey University main campus on Tuscan Avenue in Hattiesburg was severely damaged when a large tornado struck before daylight on Jan. 21. No fatalities and only seven non-life-threatening injuries were reported. (BP photo courtesy of WCU)

DIRECT HIT – The William Carey University main campus on Tuscan Avenue in Hattiesburg was severely damaged when a large tornado struck before daylight on Jan. 21. No fatalities and only seven non-life-threatening injuries were reported. (BP photo courtesy of WCU)


HATTIESBURG, Miss. (BP and local reports) — An EF3 tornado that ripped through southern Mississippi in the wee hours of the morning on Jan. 21 damaged nearly all of the 30 buildings on Baptist-affiliated William Carey University’s main campus in Hattiesburg and struck at least three Mississippi Baptist churches in the area.

Seven William Carey University (WCU) students sustained non-life-threatening injuries. No fatalities were recorded on campus, but four people in a nearby neighborhood died from storm-related injuries. Preliminary damage assessments were not available by the Record’s printing deadline.

Trinity Church, Petal; First Church, Petal; and New Testament Church, Hattiesburg, all cooperating member churches of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, suffered damage but avoided injuries and fatalities as the massive storm moved through just a few minutes after striking WCU.

The Mississippi Baptist Disaster Relief Task Force was immediately activated and dispatched to First Church, Petal, which will serve as the base of Baptist response and recovery operations, according to Don Gann, task force coordinator and director of men’s ministry for the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB) in Jackson.

The task force’s mass feeding unit deployed to that location and was serving meals by the evening of Jan. 21, Gann said. “Chainsaw teams are responding. Also, we are partnering with Pine Belt Association and First Church, Petal, to help the community.”

Gann asked for prayer for storm victims and added, “This response will be long enough that everyone who wants to volunteer likely can work.

“The Pine Belt area has been overwhelmed by help from so many, but curious sightseers are hampering power crews and law enforcement from getting into areas affected because of roads clogged with traffic. Encourage your church not to just ‘show up.’ Ask them to contact the task force or a church in the area that they know can accommodate teams of volunteers.”

For more information on the Mississippi Baptist response, contact the task force in the MBCB Men’s Ministry Department at P.O. Box 530, Jackson, MS 39205-0530. Telephone: (601) 292-3335 or toll-free outside Jackson (800) 748-1651, ext. 335. E-mail: dvail@mbcb.org.

WCU President Tommy King commended staff and students for their quick response to warnings about the approaching tornado.

“This illustrates the value of having a disaster plan in place,” King told Hattiesburg American newspaper staff writer Ellen Ciurczak. “As soon as the alarm sounded, the housing staff got students downstairs into safe areas. They got a 5- to 10-minute warning before the tornado hit.”

Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board (MBCB), wrote in his Directions column in the Jan. 26 issue of The Baptist Record that touring the WCU campus made him realize “the school is not going to be able to open for weeks, or months, or maybe a year.”

Still, Futral wrote, “With the strength of God, along with the love and help of His people, the families all around Petal and Hattiesburg, including the large family at William Carey University that has come from literally all four corners of the world, we will realize that God is with us, God is for us, and that God will deliver us.”

WCU spokeswoman Mia Overton told Baptist Press, “The outpouring of support from not only here in Hattiesburg but also around the state and out of state has just been tremendous. Although the William Carey University campus is closed, the university is open and we are doing everything we can to continue operations.”

The tornado was among a line of storms to hit the Southeast Saturday and Sunday, killing at least 19 people and leaving damage from Mississippi to Georgia, according to media reports.

While there were no deaths on the William Carey campus, the injured included a member of the women’s soccer team who lost three fingers when a door slammed on her hand, Overton said. A separate group of students was returning to campus as the storm struck, and it lifted their car off the ground, she said.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger newspaper reported that three first-year medical students studying in the Medical Arts Building on campus found themselves “surrounded by rubble.” In another building, a professor was in his third-floor office when much of the roof detached.

Four buildings may have to be demolished and replaced including Tatum Court, the “iconic building in the center of campus” erected in 1914, Overton said. The university “would like to try to save

[Tatum Court] if at all possible, but we don’t know if that’s going to be feasible.”

Also facing potential demolition are two dormitories and the building housing the School of Business, Overton said. The Clarion-Ledger reported damage to most of the vehicles on campus and a “gaping hole” in Green Science Hall.

Lloyd Lunceford, MBCB director of collegiate ministry, said the Baptist Student Union (BSU) building on the WCU campus received slight damage and is in the process of being assessed. He said members of the Carey BSU have been meeting with members of the BSU at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), which is also in Hattiesburg.

Of WCU’s approximately 4,400 students, 800 live on the Hattiesburg campus, Overton said, noting many had gone home for the weekend. There is no estimate on how many people were on campus when the storm hit.

Campus residents who were unable to go home have been moved to temporary housing at USM. Coincidentally, USM was heavily damaged by an EF4 tornado on February 10, 2013.

In an effort to complete the WCU winter trimester, online classes are continuing as scheduled and many traditional classes will move online, Overton said. Courses like science labs that cannot move online may meet at USM or Pearl River Community College south of Hattiesburg down U.S. Highway 11 in Poplarville.

Students’ immediate physical needs have been met, Overton said. Continuing relief efforts will focus on repairing the campus and helping students with expenses like lost textbooks and computers.

“The safety of our students and faculty and staff remains the top priority,” Overton said.

Individuals and churches are encouraged to support the overall relief efforts by giving through MBCB (designate the check for Miss. Baptist Disaster Relief). For those wishing to earmark a donation for WCU, they may still send it through MBCB (designated for WCU Relief).

Donations are being received on-line at www.mbcb.org or at MBCB, P.O. Box 530, Jackson, MS 39205-0530. Alternatively, WCU support may be sent directly to the university at WCU, 498 Tuscan Ave., Hattiesburg, MS 39401 (designated “Disaster Fund”).

In-kind donations such as non-perishable food, shoes, clothing, and gift cards are currently not being accepted through MBCB.

The Mississippi Disaster Relief Task Force is supported by gifts to the Mississippi Cooperative Program, the Margaret Lackey State Missions Offering, and donations.