By BECKY GILLETTE
HATTIESBURG — The Merchants Foodservice corporate office on Edwards Street was severely damaged by the EF3 tornado Jan. 21 that hit Hattiesburg. But fast action and teamwork resulted in the office being quickly relocated to the Lamar County Industrial Park in Purvis.
“We never experienced any disruption in delivery,” said Joshua Wilson, marketing coordinator for Merchants Foodservice. “Immediately after the storm, our CEO, Andy Mercier, was in the building to make sure all of our equipment was okay. Our IT (information technology) team was there almost immediately getting anything that was salvageable. We all pulled together as we do in times of crisis like this. Even though the corporate office provides support to distribution centers, they weren’t affected. We were able to make deliveries on time. We received a tremendous outpouring of support from customers on social media with well wishes from everyone.”
Wilson said damage was severe both inside and outside. That included broken windows in the office area and rollup gates that were ripped off in the warehouse.
“We had just purchased a brand new sign and it is twisted and lying near the driveway into the office,” Wilson said.
Some equipment like monitors and keyboards were mostly destroyed, but other equipment may be okay. The company is continuing to assess the impact IT equipment.
“Thankfully, our IT department and entire staff were fast moving and able to set up a new office for us quickly,” Wilson said. “There may be some delays in returns of phone calls and emails as our phone service is still being ported over from the old office to the new office.”
Merchants Foodservice is a broadline food distributor with operations in 12 states. There are 50 people employed at the corporate office. The company founded in Hattiesburg in 1904 has been at its corporate offices on Edwards Street for about 70 years.
“Edwards Street took the brunt of the damage from the tornado,” Wilson said. “William Carey University was really hard hit with about 90 percent of buildings damaged. The residences around us on Edwards Street were also heavily damaged or destroyed. Two people were killed in a trailer park directly across the street from our office.”
Wilson said the tornado traveled from Highway 49 down William Carey Parkway, William Carey University and then Edwards Street.
“It looks like the brunt of impact was in those areas,” he said.
The Dollar General located in front of the Merchants Foodservice building is currently closed and has windows boarded up. Wilson said the Family Dollar Store located nearby looks like it took extreme damage.
Merchants Foodservice had no employees injured by the tornado, in part because it hit very early on a Saturday morning.
“No one was in the office at the time, but it was totally devastated,” Wilson said. “Our corporate office includes a front office and warehouse space. The warehouse is okay for the most part. The front office has to be gutted and rebuilt, which we estimate will take six to nine months. We are renting temporary space at 117 Central Industrial Row in Purvis until repairs are completed.”
C.L. Dews & Sons Foundry & Machinery, located near Merchants on Edwards Street, reported only minor damage and little disruption to their business. But repairs at the biggest business in that part of town, William Carey University, are expected to take a long time.
“We are praying and hoping for the best for friends on Edwards Street and at William Carey University,” Wilson said. “A couple of churches in our area were heavily damaged and the Hattiesburg Fire Department lost their Station Two. It was a total loss. The firefighters actually sat in the back of the fire truck while it was happening. They were okay. They were out responding to the disaster immediately after even though their home had been destroyed.
For long time we will hearing be amazing stories of courage, and about the ways that our communities pulled together after the tornado that are remarkable.”
Wilson said the company has experience recovering from disasters because of damage they had from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“We do have some experience in these types of things in Mississippi,” he said. “But we were not as badly damaged in Katrina. You didn’t see this level of devastation after Katrina. There are lots of trees down, twisted powerlines and buildings that have been destroyed.”
Mississippi Power Company reported that at the peak, about 11,000 customers were out of power because of the tornado.
“The company organized an expert storm team, working overnight with more than 600 additional linemen, engineers, tree crews and support personnel to respond quickly and repair electrical equipment damage,” a Mississippi Power press release said. “Crews assisting Mississippi Power in the restoration effort came from sister company Gulf Power, and utility partners in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and north Mississippi.”
Mississippi Power Vice President of Customer Services Organization Nicole Faulk said the power restoration was a result of a tremendous effort from hundreds of Mississippi Power employees and hundreds more from their utility partners across the South.
“Most importantly, hundreds of power poles were replaced, miles of wire were restrung and tons of damaged equipment was removed accident-free,” Faulk said. “That’s a true testament to the expertise and commitment of the storm team.”