The powerful tornadoes that churned their way through south-central Mississippi into neighboring Alabama Sunday evening left devastation in their wake.
While there were no deaths associated with a powerful twister that struck Hattiesburg, it did lead to widespread damage to buildings, homes, cars and a church. Scores of people – as many as 60, according to various reports – were injured, and seven counties were placed under a State of Emergency issued by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.
Westminster Presbyterian Church, located about a block away from the University of Southern Mississippi campus, was hit hard by the storm, which also caused damage to the offices for the Mississippi Presbytery.
“That’s a devastating blow to Westminster; it’s a great church,” said the Rev. Michael Herrin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson in western Mississippi near Vicksburg and a former stated clerk of Mississippi Presbytery. “This will be like having to start over.”
Online photos of the church show large trees leaning against the building and others lying along the grounds, many of them snapped like twigs. Portions of the church’s roof are missing, windows are smashed, walls are crushed and piles of rubble litter the lawn and driveway surrounding the structure.
Current Administrative Presbyter Dr. John Dudley said the church suffered extensive damage, and three other buildings on the property were destroyed. The presbytery office was removed from its foundation, moved some 6 feet, and Dudley said there was little left to salvage following his site visit on Monday.
“It was tremendously frightening,” Dudley said, describing the sound as that of the classic freight train mentioned so often when tornadoes strike an area. “We went through Katrina, and it was a lot like that, only it lasted 30 seconds instead of 12 hours.”
Dudley said no firm decisions have been made about the future of the presbytery office, though there has been an offer of some office space available made by a congregation in Laurel.
Congregants of Westminster, which has about 200 members, will be holding services in a nearby Methodist church for the foreseeable future.
While the debris was scattered everywhere from the tornado’s destructive path, Dudley said members of the Westminster congregation were rallying together with others in the community.
“I was really impressed with how many of the church members and community members were there cleaning up the debris on the church yard,” he said. “There was a pastor from Jackson, 100 miles away, there helping. They are rallying, there’s no doubt about it.”
Officials with the university issued a statement noting that several buildings had been damaged, but there were no injuries. The tornado snapped trees on the campus grounds, blew out windows in buildings and ripped a portion of the roof of the Alumni house.
The tornado twisted its way through Hattiesburg, which straddles Forrest and Lamar counties, around 5 p.m. (CST) Sunday and was nearly a mile in width. Several hundred homes were damaged, according to initial assessments by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
According to The Associated Press, the twister has been deemed an EF3 tornado with wind speeds reaching 145 mph. The path of destruction for the tornado was roughly 75 miles long.
USA Today indicated that there were 15 reports of tornadoes Sunday night in Mississippi and Alabama.
Residents interviewed by various media outlets likened the storm and its devastation to Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Herrin said he would like to see churches, even though not under the umbrella of the PCUSA, across Mississippi come together to aid the Westminster congregation and others facing the devastation brought on by the powerful tornado.
“I’m hopeful all churches in Mississippi, regardless of denomination, will help out,” Herrin said. “It’s the only thing to do. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re going to help them, that’s the bottom line.”
Dudley said there already have been offers of financial assistance made in support of Westminster as well as the presbytery. Any additional offers of assistance in any form can be made by calling Dudley at 601-446-5716.