This is a news release from the University of Southern Mississippi
When daylight broke over the iconic and historic University of Southern Mississippi campus on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, Chris Crenshaw's heart sank at the devastation that lay before him. Only hours earlier, a powerful F-4 tornado had ravaged the front portion of the Hattiesburg campus.
Majestic oak trees – some more than 90 years old – had been reduced to firewood. The renowned rose garden was stripped and littered with debris deposited by the storm. The tranquil, verdant, most visible part of campus had been turned into a wasteland.
Today, Crenshaw's heart swells with pride as he gazes upon the impressive restoration effort that has transformed the University's "front porch" in just three years' time. Long gone are any vestiges of the broken and battered landscape, replaced with magnificent new greenery and related upgrades.
"Because the tornado happened on a Sunday evening, we couldn't see the full extent of the damage," said Crenshaw, Associate Vice President for Facilities Planning and Management at Southern Miss. "Seeing the devastation in daylight was heartbreaking, but I knew that we could recover. I just wasn't sure what that recovery process would entail and how it would look in the end."
After 40 months of tireless work – which included an extensive restoration fundraising campaign – the Hattiesburg campus sports a regal and engaging profile.
"I have worked on this campus in some capacity for more than 20 years, and I can honestly say that this is the best the campus has ever looked," said Crenshaw. "I never envisioned that it would be this beautiful. The honor wall, the rose garden, when they are in full bloom, all of it is quite impressive. It's also exciting to know that a foundation has been laid for improvements to come that will benefit future Golden Eagles."
The massive tornado cut a devastating path through the Hattiesburg area on that Sunday evening, leveling hundreds of homes and businesses. The storm spared a majority of the Southern Miss campus, but wrecked the Southeastern portion near Hardy Street -- damaging several buildings, destroying more than 75 trees, while littering the campus with all manner of debris.
After assessing the considerable damage, University officials quickly set about the task of designing and implementing a restoration initiative.
Loren Erickson, Superintendent of Campus Landscape, estimates that he has spent more than 1,000 hours working exclusively on areas affected by the tornado. He and other members of the University's Physical Plant toiled beyond the norm to help restore the campus' once-pristine appearance. Their efforts have paid off handsomely.
"There's not a day goes by that I don't get a comment from somebody about how amazing it looks and how far we've come," said Erickson. "There's always something blooming; there's always something to see, and it is inviting to all. It is truly astonishing to see the progress that's been made after such a devastating storm.
New additions/upgrades to the front landscape have included:
Lighted concrete pathways
Expansion and beautification of Lake Byron
Planting of 22 new trees, including five large transplanted live oaks
300 new shrubs planted
5,000 square yards of Bermuda sod installed
5,100 pieces of monkey grass and other ground cover
400 bales of straw to keep out weeds and prevent water runoff
The front landscape project became even more dramatic and compelling with the unveiling of a massive eagle sculpture donated by Southern Miss alum Chuck Scianna in October, 2013. The bronze sculpture, located at the apex of the famed rose garden, measures approximately 22-foot tall by 20-foot wide and sits atop an 8-foot high pyramid-shaped base.
"Honestly, my proudest moment is the teamwork, collaboration and vision that everybody shared in the restoration process," said Erickson. "We really took a step back and carefully thought out the way forward before even starting to design it. We were able to involve the entire community, and they responded with resounding support."
No campus building took a greater hit than the historic Ogletree House, one of the University's original five buildings and home to the Alumni Association offices. The front half of the building was blown apart, forcing repairs that took approximately 18 months to complete.
Alumni Association Executive Director Jerry DeFatta marvels at the view outside his office door now, compared to the destruction he witnessed three years ago.
"The transformation of the southernmost edge of the Hattiesburg campus following the February 2013 tornado has been nothing short of incredible." said DeFatta. "I believe the view of campus from Hardy Street is more inviting today than it has ever been. I am grateful for the staff of Southern Miss Physical Plant and the hard work they invest in maintaining this important area of our campus."
For Erickson, the 14-hour days have subsided into a more normal daily routine. As he reflects on the day that changed the University forever, Erickson expresses satisfaction that expectations were met … and perhaps even exceeded.
"The best way I have found to describe it is that we wanted to make the restoration what everyone thought it used to be and what everyone thought it should be," he said. "And when I look at the front of campus now I'm so very proud of the work that's been done by the people who brought it back and restored it."