It was the size of a 1950s-era college football pennant, a triangular piece of corrugated tin, twinkling just off the road at the edge of tidy lawn near downtown Hattiesburg.
Another few blocks east on East Hardy Street, on the north corner of Tipton Avenue, a Collision Center sign hung by a corner after being twisted and torn from its wooden bracket, its arrow pointing to the saturated grass at its base.
Traveling east on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon the evidence mounted of the darkness ahead.
A knot of folks applied a plywood patch to a fractured window on an otherwise business-as-usual-looking business on the south edge of East Hardy. Splintered tree branches hung from scraggly woods to the north. A solid line of traffic headed back west toward Hattiesburg, passing east-bound bucket trucks, phone service vehicles and a hauler toting a pair of port-a-lets.
Then, suddenly, like Dorothy opening the front door of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry’s farmhouse, the view opened on a different world.
Much of the familiar remained just shy of the Leaf River, serving as a frame to base one’s bearings, but much of the landscape inside that frame had been shattered, severed, shredded.
Large trees had been knocked about like so many tenpins, except these had been wrestled to the ground, the torn ends twisted into bright, white spears of exposed, broken wood.
One of the toppled trees was pulled from its earth, a 6-foot root ball exposed to a blue sky.
Downed power lines snaked through patches of mud and puddles of dirty water before disappearing into the debris and devastation.
An old, black Ford 100 pickup sat outside an auto and tire shop just west of the barricaded entrance to the Leaf River Bridge, its windshield spiderwebbed and a single cinder block nested in insulation atop its hood.
Into the maelstrom, again
For the second time in less than four years, Hattiesburg, Petal and Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties had been savaged by a winter tornado.
Early damage surveys by the National Weather Service pegged Saturday morning’s nightmare as an EF3 on the enhanced Fujita scale, with wind speeds between 136 miles per hour to 165 miles per hour.
The potential impact of such a beast is laid out in a sobering, brief description accompanying the scale: “Severe damage. Roofs completely torn off well-constructed buildings, along with some walls; majority of trees uprooted; trains overturned; vehicles lifted off ground.”
The potential became reality early Saturday morning along an estimated 23-mile swath that spread a half-mile wide at some points.
And unlike the February 2013 tornado that tore through Lamar County, Hattiesburg and Petal, the system that roared into the Pine Belt in the dead of the morning was a killer.
The Forrest County Coroner’s Office confirmed four people lost their lives in the darkness, with reports of nearly two dozen more injured. Hundreds of houses, businesses and other structures across three counties were damaged or destroyed. An estimated 16,000 people were left without electricity. Some areas had gas lines ripped open.
A state of emergency was declared by Gov. Phil Bryant, who flew into Hattiesburg Saturday afternoon. Local officials instituted Saturday curfews for areas hardest hit.
Shock and silence
Walking through parts of Petal, around the William Carey University campus, down Helveston Road, the locations shift, but the memories flood back the same.
The smell of fresh pine and diesel. The buzz of chainsaws. The shrill beep of utility trucks in reverse. Tears. Sweat.
University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett, who was at William Carey Saturday, has walked the road as well.
“It’s the most devastating feeling and reality that you can face as an individual, as a member of the community and a leader of the community,” Bennett said. “It just absolutely takes the wind right out of your sails.
“But the good news, as we’ve heard so many times (Saturday) is that this community, this state, is resilient, and we will work together to make sure that these communities are put back together and we’ll be better at the end of it.”