A week after an F-4 tornado destroyed his Hattiesburg home and damaged The University of Southern Mississippi campus, Willie Pierce met with an insurance claims adjuster at his 34th Avenue residence, now a pile of rubble, to assess his material losses.
Pierce, a professor emeritus at the University, also took stock of more important, irreplaceable possessions as he shared his story about survival, the outreach of a selfless community and the kindness of a stranger he dearly wants to thank.
“I was with my wife Carol and one of my former doctoral students following the storm on the news when the power went out,” Pierce said. “I looked out back and saw the trees doing a hula dance, and decided we needed to get in the hallway.”
What followed was chaos as metal doors blew in and fell on his wife, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and a couch overturning on his former student. The roof and several walls caved in, with trees down on his driveway and cars. While covered in debris and trying to regain his senses, Pierce said a man walked up and asked if he could help.
“He and I lifted the doors off of Carol, and I got her up off the floor and back in her wheelchair,” Pierce said. “After that, I looked around and didn’t see him anywhere. I didn’t get his name.”
Though his home is destroyed, today he’s thankful he, his wife and friend are alive and for the help of volunteers, neighbors, university colleagues, students and the mystery man who came to his aid.
“Generous. Generous is the word,” Pierce said, his voice breaking. “People have gone way out of their way to help.”
Eric Bass, a junior political science major from McComb, Miss. was at his home on Kimball Avenue in Hattiesburg when the tornado hit. His roommate had just left their house when Bass turned on his television and saw the storm warnings.
“I freaked out because when I turned on the television, it was only about six or seven blocks away,” Bass said. “I called my roommate and said ‘Man, you might want to get back home.'”
His roommate returned to find Bass in the closet with his dog. “He looked at me and said ‘You think it’s that serious?’ and about that time it came through. You could hear the whole house shaking.”
Bass said he wondered if his time was up. “You have a little time to accept your fate, and I thought to myself that I wasn’t expecting to go like this, and then like that it was all over,” he said.
Before Bass, his dog and roommate could crawl out of the closet, they could smell pine trees. Looking out a window, they saw all of their trees down on the ground, along with part of someone’s roof.
“We had no power, and then it started raining again. The wind picked up and we ran back in the closet,” Bass said. “We noticed after it started raining, there was leaking from the kitchen ceiling. Then it (ceiling) collapsed on that side of the house, but we got out before it fell in.”
For now, Bass is staying at the homes of various friends – “couch hopping” as he describes it – until he can find a new permanent residence. Family, fellow students and faculty have also offered him their help.
“It’s overwhelming. People I don’t even know have brought me food, helped me and my neighbors clear our yards of debris, and provided me with a bed or couch to sleep on,” Bass said. “We live in a great community.”
Reaching out to help
Many Southern Miss faculty, staff and students have volunteered to help storm-affected residents in local communities. On Friday, Feb. 15 and Saturday, Feb. 16, history professor Dr. Douglas Chambers and political science professor Dr. Bob Press were among those who volunteered in heavily damaged Hattiesburg, Oak Grove and Petal neighborhoods cleaning up the mess created by the tornado that struck on Feb. 10.
Chambers and history graduate student John Mangipano of Chalmette, La. signed up for a community volunteer project at the Hattiesburg Train Depot, where they were assigned to the Dixie Avenue neighborhood off of West Fourth Street. There, they joined others in clearing debris from the home of James Tangman.
“I really appreciate this,” Tangman said. “I’m going to buy dinner for these guys.”
Chambers said he was impressed by the Southern Miss students who came out on their Mardi Gras holiday Tuesday, Feb. 12 to help clean up the Hattiesburg campus, where several buildings were damaged, including the iconic Ogletree Alumni House. Many trees were also damaged or blown over at the university.
“I’m just following the example set by our students and other volunteers,” Chambers said. “So many people need help, and I’m glad I can contribute in some way.”
In addition to joining the campus cleanup organized by students, Press went out to help residents in the Heights-Avenues, on Bouie Street in east Hattiesburg and in Petal over the weekend. Like Chambers, he worked clearing yards of debris and removing damaged possessions from homes.
“It speaks volumes about this community when you see the number of people who’ve come out to help,” Press said. “Working together, we’ll rebound from this disaster.”
A tree fell on the Oliver Avenue home of Debbie Gilbert, an Eagle Dining employee at Southern Miss. The next day, she received offers to remove the tree but the charges for removal were beyond her immediate ability to pay, as she was unable to get to her bank.
Out of nowhere, she said, members of the Southern Miss track team and a coach showed up offering to help cut up and remove the tree. “They didn’t want any money and weren’t seeking publicity – they were just a group of humble, hard-working young people who wanted to help. But I want to make sure they get the credit they deserve,” she said.
Josh Duplantis, director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, has worked steadily since the day the tornado hit coordinating student volunteers who want to help. He said the actions of the track team are typical of what he sees from Southern Miss students not only after the storm, but in helping others in need every day.
“This was a unique opportunity for our students to make a difference, not only in the community but here on campus,” Duplantis said. “They’ve responded enthusiastically and with great compassion.”
Southern Miss Faculty Senate President Mary Ann Adams praised university employees for their ability to endure personal hardships and reach out to help others. “I think the response from our people has been tremendous,” said Adams, a professor of family therapy. “As a community, we have really pulled together and I think this experience will make us even closer.”
Pierce is uncertain if he will rebuild on the same site or move into another home. Right now, he’s counting his blessings – surviving the storm, the generosity of others, including from the anonymous Good Samaritan – perfect ingredients, he believes, for the storyline of a novel or movie.
“I call it ‘Miracle on 34th Avenue’ – the sequel,” he said.
Students, faculty and staff who incurred losses due to the Feb. 10 tornado may be eligible for disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). To find out if you qualify for disaster relief, you must first register with FEMA, including by phone at 1.800.621.3362; TTY (text telephone) at 1.800.462.7585; or apply on your smartphone at m.fema.gov.
For more information or to apply online, visit www.DisasterAssistance.gov. To support the Southern Miss Emergency Relief Fund, online visit https://securelb.imodules.com/s/1149/index.aspx?sid=1149&gid=1&pgid=775&cid=1587