They never thought it would happen here

Growing up in the High Plains, as you know, has made me a person obsessed with weather. Most folks of the agricultural states are. It’s not unexpected, after all, because the lives and livelihoods of farmers and those who depend on them are at the mercy of weather events.

Whether it’s drought or flood, what’s happening with the weather directly affects what happens with crops and associated agricultural elements. So. I’m just a product of where I grew up and who my ancestors were.

The plains states are known as a place where severe weather events happen. All the places I’ve lived, for instance, were subject to tornadoes. Stories about bizarre effects of tornadoes were favorites among my relatives, stories about seeing hay straws driven through a fence post and other seemingly impossible happenings.

During the 1960s, I lived in Wichita, Kansas, located about in the center of what was then called Tornado Alley. Tornado Alley ran from Wichita Falls, Texas, to Kansas City, Missouri. The “season” was late spring/early summer, and many evenings in that time period were spent either staying alert for storm warnings or taking shelter when they’d been issued.

The signs became all too familiar: darkening skies, winds rising from the southwest, clouds forming rolling masses that seemed to get closer and closer to the ground, hues of greenish gold and black taking over the sky and pressures steadily dropping. Hail might come first and heavy rain that blocked out the view.

I’ve been in Mississippi more than 32 years now and have learned more than I want to know about another severe storm: hurricanes. I’ve also learned that spring tornadoes aren’t confined to Tornado Alley or any other locations in the Central States or the Midwest. The fact is, Mississippi ranks very high in the numbers of tornadoes a year, deaths from tornadoes and the amount of damage from them.

Hattiesburg, however, had never in its 125-year history had a tornado in the heart of the city. They had hit all around, nearby and gone over, but never dipped down. The reason, we’d been told, stems from the legend that tornadoes don’t strike at the fork of two rivers, where Hattiesburg is located.

I had never believed the legend, of course, knowing of many cities located where rivers fork that had experienced tornadoes. Nonetheless, citizens here seem lulled by the legend, preferring to ignore reality.

Hurricane watching, however, is real and done by most residents. For weeks, sometimes, everyone watches the progression of a storm moving from the Atlantic to the Gulf to onshore. Severe hurricanes have hit Hattiesburg more than once, so hurricane forecasts are closely watched.

Severe storm warnings in winter and early spring have not been paid close attention, however. Then came Christmas 2012, bringing to town Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel, usually a predictor of where a storm will be the worst. Sure enough, severe storms boiled up, and throughout that holiday, we stayed glued to the television and the newest radar reports. Tornadoes hit south of us and later northeast, some causing major damage.

We got the wind and heavy rain with its ensuing whiteout. As we saw the storm moving across the radar screen and right over the house, we felt the pressure and just hoped it would continue to move past – and it did.

After that I think more residents here began to seriously consider the possibility that Hattiesburg could be the center of a tornado. If so, that was probably a good thing. When the warning sirens began to blow the afternoon of Feb. 10, perhaps more took heed and tuned into weather news on radio or television. Perhaps more than might otherwise thought about when, where and how to take cover.

That Sunday afternoon a funnel cloud dropped down west of the city in Lamar County and near U.S. Hwy. 98. The funnel, a wide, long-track one as it turned out, continued along that basic route, moving from the north side to the south and back again, right into the city, demolishing homes and businesses and ripping up trees as it went.

The power of it was rated from EF 3 and 4 as it roared through Hattiesburg and Petal, to an EF 1 toward the end. It stayed on the ground more than 45 minutes and traveled through Hattiesburg to Petal, then on to the Waynesboro area. Many were injured but amazingly, none died. More than 2,000 structures were destroyed or damaged in a two-county area with more in a third. The University of Southern Mississippi suffered major damage to buildings and grounds.

Although heavy rains continued throughout the next day, volunteers immediately organized and set up teams to go out to the damaged areas, starting what will no doubt be a very long-term recovery effort. Besides many hours of volunteer work and help from agencies, it will take millions of dollars in assistance from insurance and federal emergency funds to recover.

We all know, of course, that damage from Katrina and other hurricanes is more general; tornadoes cause major damage in specific areas. This tornado took out old oak trees that survived Katrina.

I don’t know if my friends and neighbors will ever be as weather obsessed as I am or as convinced that we have to be forecast conscious, but I expect most have given up on the legend about the fork of two rivers.

 

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