By BECKY GILLETTE
When William Carey University President Tommy King first saw the devastation of the campus after the EF3 tornado Jan. 22, his thought was: “We will never be able to save this campus.”
“The campus was just in total disarray,” King said. “All but two buildings had damage of varying degrees. About 90 percent of the buildings had serious damage. We ended up losing six buildings including Tatum Court, our oldest and largest building, the anatomy lab building in the medical school complex, and two women’s dorms, Ross Hall and Johnson Hall. They were favorites for women because one of them had suites and the other had full apartments. Students loved those dorms. The fifth building was 512 Tuscan Ave, which housed the Lucille Parker Gallery and five apartments. The sixth building that was totaled was a new acquisition for us out on Highway 49 and it was not being used at the present time.”
King was quickly proven wrong about the ability of the university to come back from the tremendous devastation. Two days after the tornado, more than 500 cleanup and repair people were on campus. By March, there were still 300 to 350 workers making repairs on campus.
“That employment represents a significant economic impact,” King said.
King said a quick response by the university’s insurance company, GuideOne, and its contractors, Hanco General Contractors, allowed work to get done much more quickly then he would have initially believed possible.
Seven weeks after the storm, five of the destroyed buildings had been razed and the final building was scheduled to be removed during spring break. Enough repairs were done that undergraduate classes were able to resume on campus on Feb. 20.
Work is underway on constructing the new medical school anatomy lab. It is expected to be rebuilt by July. In the meantime, King said the medical school has been meeting at the old nursing school building at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“We are greatly indebted to Southern Miss for providing space,” King said. “They had moved out into a new nursing school building. Their old nursing building was sitting there, so they offered it. Our medical and physical therapy classes are still meeting there and will remain there until the end of the semester in mid-May.”
Right after the storm, most classes were moved online. While many classes are back meeting in person, there are still a number meeting online. The college regularly offers online education, as well.
William Carey got a $2 million donation from the Asbury Foundation toward recovery, and many, many businesses donations.
“Practically every bank and many of the businesses in Hattiesburg have donated,” King said. “The response from businesses has been marvelous. Three local automobile dealers ran a special where they contributed $100 per automobile sold to William Carey. Petro Motors donated more than $20,000, the Toyota dealership more than $15,000 and Matt Grubb Hyundai also made a significant donation.”
Local golf courses donated a day for charity golf that attracted 300 golfers and raised more than $80,000.
“That is unheard of and unsurpassed in Hattiesburg,” King said.
There were about 800 students on campus when the tornado hit. King said the fact that no students were killed and only a few injured was amazing.
“I attribute that to the fact that each school is required to have an emergency response plan,” he said. “We had just revised and updated our plan this past year and trained our personnel and students. I think the fact they implemented that plan properly and were quick to move students to safer areas accounts for the fact there were no fatalities.”
There were 116 student automobiles either totally destroyed or severely damaged. King said many students had only liability insurance and won’t get help replacing the transportation they need to get to jobs and classes.
William Carey didn’t seek governmental assistance from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That was because of the experience of the university with its campus on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. The bureaucratic process was lengthy and difficult.
“It was 3.5 to four years before we finally got permission to demolish some of the buildings,” King said. “We couldn’t risk that happening again. At a college, getting back into operation quickly so you can retain your enrollment is extremely important. And because we are a faith-based organization, we want the freedom to operate within the buildings we build. We don’t want to take federal money and then be told we can’t teach a religious class or hold a devotional service in those buildings.”
Four residents of nearby neighborhoods were killed by the storm that was estimated to cost about $200 million in damages in Hattiesburg and Petal.
“Our hearts go out to the people in the surrounding neighborhood who lost homes and are not able to recover as quickly,” King said.
It wasn’t just buildings that were lost. The building that housed the Lucille Parker Art Gallery was destroyed. While the frames of many painting were damaged beyond recovery, the paintings were salvaged and preserved.
“We are so pleased the art collection was saved through the work of many people, not only in our own art department, but community volunteers,” King said. “One of the first people on the site was Rep. Toby Barker. He recognized the potential threat to the paintings and went to work immediately in getting them out. Our employees took those to the Lauren Rogers Museum in Laurel where they were stored and dried. We have much gratitude to Lauren Rogers. This is the second time they have helped save our art collections. After Katrina, the Sarah Gillespie collection was damaged, and Lauren Rogers helped us preserve the paintings in that collection. William Carey has the largest and most representative art produced by Mississippians of the 20th Century. We saved practically all of the paintings.”
William Carey University has about 3,000 students, and enrollment was up by 1.1 percent for the spring semester.
“That seems like an insignificant increase, but the national trend for college enrollment is down,” King said. “We feel any increase at all is highly significant and reflects the loyalty of the students and all that our staff and faculty have done to support the students.”