“I was looking at it in my rear-view mirror,” the 19-year-old Tupelo man recalled Monday about his experience with a massive storm system that barreled across south Mississippi.
The powerful twister tore a path across at least three counties – Forrest, Lamar and Marion – injuring more than 60 people, but residents marveled that no one died.
Officials said circumstances converged to ensure no lives were lost in what should have been a deadly storm: Sirens and TV broadcasts gave people as much as 30 minutes of warning; the University of Southern Mississippi was emptier than usual because of Mardi Gras; and most businesses were either closed or quiet because it was a Sunday.
Forecasters were able to closely track where the storm was headed and had confirmed reports from people on the ground and from radar, making it easier to give warning, said weather service meteorologist Chad Entremont.
Bennett Forrest of Tupelo and his friends took shelter in his apartment bathroom after text warnings from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Moments before, the 20-year-old Tupelo High School graduate said, “The sky was green, it made me think of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
Forrest said his immediate neighborhood was spared heavy damage but that much of town looks like a mess with trees and construction debris everywhere.
The USM campus, where he and Rial are theater majors, was off-limits as emergency workers dealt with the storm’s destruction.
“We could hear the rumble, far away,” Forrest said about the few minutes before they took shelter. “Then we could see it over the trees and the debris being blown up.”
Later, as they ventured out to see what had happened, the city was largely in darkness without street or traffic lights.
“It was very eerie,” Forrest said.
Gov. Phil Bryant said the twister carved a path of destruction roughly 75 miles long, although National Weather Service officials have not yet determined the tornado’s exact path or how long it was on the ground. Early indications show it was an EF3 tornado with wind speeds reaching 145 miles per hour in parts of Hattiesburg.
It touched down on Hardy Street, a principal Hattiesburg thoroughfare that runs along the south end of the USM campus.
On the 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 was under a state of emergency and told people to stay away from campus until further notice.
Robert St. John, who writes a Sunday food column for the Daily Journal, posted on his Facebook page that the twister passed about 200 feet behind his restaurant.
“No major damage other than a few windows blown out, holes in the roof, a/c units turned over etc.,” he wrote, showing a photo of a heavily damaged house behind the restaurant. “Our neighbors weren’t so lucky.”
USM students and staff are on Mardi Gras break and aren’t expected back on campus until Wednesday.
Rial credits his friends’ suggestion to play basketball with saving his life.
“I don’t even play basketball,” the THS graduate said. “But it saved me. Otherwise, I would have been home in a neighborhood that’s flat today.”
The son of Cliff and Sherry Rial said he and friends were driving toward campus when they saw the tornado.
When they reached the workout center, the doors were locked, and they headed toward a fraternity house.
That’s when Rial said he saw the storm behind him.
“At first, we just saw electricity going up through it, like it had hit power lines,” Rial said. “It was terrifying.”
The sheer scope of the damage made it difficult to do a full assessment. Some 50 roads were closed at one point because of felled trees, downed power lines and debris.
About 200 homes and mobile homes were damaged or destroyed, with another 100 apartments left uninhabitable. Several thousand remained without power, though the electricity was expected to be restored to most customers later Monday, Bryant said.
Oak Grove High School near Hattiesburg was hit and its athletics facilities severely damaged.
While more tornadoes were not in the forecast, heavy rain was expected into today. And that could make cleanup efforts even more difficult, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Bryant in Jackson.