HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Rain and thunderstorms were likely to complicate work Tuesday to clean up the debris strewn across southern Mississippi by a tornado, which left residents marveling that no one died despite the severity of the destruction.
Roofs were torn from homes and massive trees were tossed across houses. In one part of Hattiesburg, the bricks that had once formed the wall of a church were thrown onto a pickup truck, leaving very little of the vehicle intact.
On Monday, residents tried to cut trees and branches with chain saws and hang tarps across gaping holes where shingles were ripped from structures. But rain and flooding complicated that, and some simply carried armfuls of belongings, trying to find dry ground.
Storm victims described close calls as the tornado roared across several counties. Officials said that while more than 60 people were hurt, no one died. They said the human toll could have been much worse, but the nature of the storm allowed forecasters to give people ample warning. Furthermore, the University of Southern Mississippi — which was directly in the tornado's path — was emptier than usual because of Mardi Gras. And most businesses were either closed or quieter than normal because it was a Sunday.
Forecasters were able to closely track where the storm was headed and had confirmed reports from both people on the ground and from radar, said National Weather Service meteorologist Chad Entremont.
Stewart Patton, 45, recalled a trampoline swirling in the Sunday twister as he and his 72-year-old mother tried to take cover. His ears popped as they got into a hallway, "and the roof went sky-high," Patton said. "When I felt the roof go, I thought the house was going to collapse."
On Monday, he held the family's poodle as friends put tarps over the gaping holes in his roof.
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, Gov. Phil Bryant said.
Bryant said the twister carved a path of destruction roughly 75 miles long, though National Weather Service officials have not yet determined the tornado's exact path or how long it was on the ground. However, early indications show it was an EF3 tornado with wind speeds reaching 145 mph in parts of Hattiesburg, Entremont said.
The twister was part of a storm cell moving faster than usual, meaning it was likely to cover more ground. Many tornadoes travel just a few miles, Entremont said.
On the USM 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 as of Monday evening and told people to stay away from campus. Faculty and staff were to return to work Wednesday, and classes wouldn't resume until Thursday.
Elsewhere, people told stories of close calls.
Jeff Revette, a 43-year-old minister and National Guard soldier, was driving down U.S. 49 when he saw the tornado and several flashes as it exploded electrical transformers. He pulled down a side road as the twister closed in, jumped out and ran to the wall of a two-story, red-brick church. He lay face-down in the grass as another woman drove up in a white pickup truck, hopped out and took cover between two low cement walls.
About 20 seconds later, the truck — only about 10 feet away — had been flattened by bricks, with the rear half of it completely destroyed. Revette, who returned from a deployment to Afghanistan about a year ago, heard the woman screaming and helped pull insulation and other debris off her. She was not seriously hurt.
"It's just amazing," he said. "God is real. I am one blessed man."
Associated Press writer Janet McConnaughey contributed to this report from New Orleans.