HATTIESBURG, MS (WBRC) - Feb. 10, 2013 is a day the Pine Belt won’t forget. It’s the day an EF-4 tornado took direct aim at Hattiesburg and its surrounding areas.
The tornado first touched down at 5:03 p.m. just southwest of Oak Grove near Bellevue. It then intensified rapidly as it moved into Oak Grove before traveling into Hattiesburg and Petal. The tornado lifted as it approached Runnelstown.
The tornado was on the ground for 33 minutes and traveled 22.5 miles. More than 80 people were injured, but miraculously, there were no fatalities.
One of the first places that was hit by the twister was Oak Grove High School. Principal Helen Price recalled the moment it happened.
“Tornado sirens were going off. We knew there was a possibility, but we didn't know it had hit until I got the call. I just jumped in my car and got here as quickly as possible,” said Price. “It was like a warzone. I've never seen anything like it.”
“We knew the girls basketball team was up here, we knew baseball was up here having practice, so we got here as soon as possible, and everyone was safe. They heard it coming and got into the locker room in time, so they were a little traumatized by it as well.”
The tornado left Oak Grove and took aim at Midtown Hattiesburg and the campus of Southern Miss.
Chief Bob Hopkins, with the USM Police Department, remembers that day.
“I think first of all what I saw was worse than Katrina; trees down, buildings totally destroyed. Elam Arms literally could have collapsed at any time because it was right in the path,” said Hopkins. “Buildings’ roofs were gone and windows blown out. When I look at those things combined with the destruction we saw and no injuries and no deaths for us, it could have been much worse.”
While the campus was heavily damaged, the pride of USM wasn't. Students organized a campus-wide cleanup through Facebook. Three days later, around 1,000 students showed up to help pick up debris.
The Pine Belt also rose up together to help everyone impacted. Oak Grove High School reopened just a few days later on Valentine's Day.
While the tornado left a path of damage, it also gave new life to Midtown. The area where Elam Arms once stood is now a $35 million entertainment district headed up by Rob Tatum.
“For them to invest that kind of money, Rob and his group, was just a game changer,” said Robert St. John, Hattiesburg restaurateur and owner of The Midtowner. “I think maybe I was one of the first people. I had been waiting for 10 years for the right spot, and for a breakfast, lunch place was perfect for us. So, we opened The Midtowner and then next to that we did Midtown Doughnuts, which also fits into that neighborhood.”
While the tornado may have brought us to its knees, one thing is for sure. We came back stronger. We see this as a bright future, no matter what we have to overcome.