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HATTIESBURG — Monday is the first day of classes for William Carey University after last month’s tornado damaged five buildings on campus beyond repair and totaled 116 student cars.

Over the weekend, close to 700 of the school’s approximately 4,500 students moved into available dorm space on campus. According to the university, 90 percent of the 140 acre campus was damaged.

“My car was totaled, but in the end it kind of taught you a lesson. Material things come and go, but as long as we’re here together as a family, that’s the only thing that mattered at the time,” said Ava Calvert, junior business finance major from Richton.

“I’ve never been so happy to come back to school. Happy to be home,” said Ashley Bond, sophomore intercultural studies major from Gulfport.

Some classes are resuming on campus, but the tornado damage is forcing some to be conducted online and others to be held at neighboring churches and the University of Southern Mississippi until the fall.

The tornado, classified as an EF-3, tore through the Pine Belt of Mississippi in the early morning hours of Jan. 21.  Four people died in the area and more than 1,100 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged. The tornado was on the ground for 31 miles through Lamar, Forrest and Perry counties.

“Our students are excited to get back,” said Dr. Tommy King, president of William Carey.  The university’s insurance carriers and separate contractors have employed hundreds of workers who, within a month, have the university “fully functioning,” said King.

“I am very delighted with the progress being made,” said Deborah Delgado, Hattiesburg city councilwoman for Ward 2, which includes the university campus.

Gov. Phil Bryant called for a state of emergency after meeting on campus with Delgado and King just hours after the storm passed.

Councilwoman Deborah Delgado, Hattiesburg Ward 2 Credit: Ashley FG Norwood, Mississippi Today

“Following Hurricane Katrina (in 2005), the emergency preparedness operations have stepped up because we never want to see ourselves in that predicament again,” said Delgado.

On Saturday, Ashley Bond looked out of her  dormitory room window at the grounds where Johnson and Ross dormitories once stood. Many students whose homes are somewhat close to the campus have opted to commute to school to open space for students who must travel greater distances to return to Hattiesburg.

During the storm, Bond wasn’t awakened by alert messages and sirens, but a friend knocked on the door of her room in Bass Hall to warn her. She jumped out of bed, and as she was leaving the room the window by her bed shattered and doors flew open and closed. At some point a wooden two-by-four blew through the window, crossed her room and crashed into the closet door.

“It was scary to return to my room five minutes after the storm to see that,” said Bond. Bass is one of the residence halls reopening for the spring term.

Ashley Bond, sophomore intercultural studies major from Gulfport, sits next to the repaired window in her dormitory room in Bass Hall.  Credit: Ashley FG Norwood, Mississippi Today

“You can still see where the window pane gave in, but now, we’ve got fresh paint,” Bond said, laughing. “Seriously, I’m just thankful.”

After the storm, the University of Southern Mississippi opened its doors to William Carey students to reside and continue their studies. William Carey’s medical school will continue to function on the USM campus in Hattiesburg. Several local churches have opened their facilities for classes as well.

“It’ll be a struggle to recover for next school year,” said King. “We expect to have two new dorms to replace Ross and Johnson finished by August. Very ambitious goal, but contractors tell us it’ll be ready.”

Two construction projects, additions to the biology building and the gymnasium, weren’t interrupted. Work on those buildings should be complete before the end of the semester.

Ross Hall, one of the oldest dormitories on campus, was rendered a total loss. Credit: William Carey University

Others may require more than a year. Tatum Court, the oldest structure on campus, built in 1914, is one of the buildings to be destroyed.

The final costs required to rebuild the campus haven’t been estimated.  “They’re still adding it up. Hopefully, we will have a number next week,” said King.

Over $1 million dollars have been raised to assist the university in its recovery. Most of that money will go to students to replace their personal losses, such as automobiles, textbooks and laptops, which aren’t covered in the university’s insurance plan.

Insurance also will not cover the cost of removing many of the damaged trees on campus or buildings with pre-existing conditions such as termite damage.

There’s a $3 million-$5 million dollar gap, said King.

William Carey will not apply and accept assistance from agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“Our experience with FEMA is they are very slow to respond,” said King. “For a university, maintaining enrollment is important. You can’t wait around a year and half for FEMA to grant funds.”

The outpouring from the community has been tremendous, said King.

Pat Calhoun, president of the Gulf South Chapter of the American Fence Association, brings volunteers from Louisiana and Mississippi to feed people on the William Carey campus on Saturday.  Credit: Ashley FG Norwood, Mississippi Today

“Today we have jambalaya,” said Pat Calhoun, president of the Gulf South chapter of the American Fence Association. On Saturday, Calhoun and volunteers from Louisiana and Mississippi, including some competition cookers, prepared the dish for workers, community members, students, employees and their families on campus.

“We’re trying to reach out to whoever we can reach out to, feed them and let them know that we care,” said Calhoun.

The state, city and county provided security for the campus and community to protect from unlawful activity like looting, said King.

During the cleanup after the storm, volunteers found windows shattered at the chapel on campus and the interior in disarray. The pulpit Bible, however, stood undisturbed and opened to Psalm 46.

“God is our refuge and strength and ever present help in struggle,” said King. “There’s a brighter day ahead and Carey will come out stronger than before.”

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Ashley F. G. Norwood, a native of Jackson, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Jackson State University and a master’s degree from the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. Norwood, who specializes in multimedia journalism, has been recognized nationally for her documentary film the fly in the buttermilk, which covers the history, perceptions and principles of black Greek-lettered organizations at the University of Mississippi.