On Sunday, February 10, 2013, an EF-4 tornado ripped across the front lawn of The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), as it swept over portions of Marion, Lamar and Forrest counties. Left in its path of destruction were remnants of the historic oaks and structures so nostalgic to the university community. Though the negative impacts of the storm were severe, the university students, faculty, and staff rallied together to rebuild. Emergency response plans for both the Department of Residence Life and University Communications are under improvement to better prepare for future crises, including updates to the Eagle Alert system.
In spite of the damage, university offices reopened the following Wednesday, and classes resumed Thursday of the same week. The six buildings most heavily damaged were the Ogletree Alumni House, Mannoni Performing Arts Center, Jazz Station Building, Fine Arts Building, Marsh Hall and McLemore Hall. 75 trees including three 90-year-old Live Oaks that once shaded the brick walkways of campus were replaced with piles of debris in the storm’s aftermath.
University staff and the Southern Miss community were determined to restore the, “Spacious skies and land of sunshine, verdant trees and shelt'ring walls,” hallowed by their alma mater. The USM Foundation established an emergency relief fund for financial contributions, and students took initiative to organize over 1,000 volunteers through social media to take part in a clean-up day on Wednesday, February 13. The USM Foundation’s Southern Miss Campus Beautification Campaign was created to address the cost of restoration planning, and raised more than $1.74 million by August 2013.
“The university has given so much to me, that when my roommate told me about the cleanup, I knew I wanted to be involved. Experiencing campus in such disarray motivated me to help bring it back,” Patrick Taylor, a Marine Biology Senior, said.
Taylor was one of many students, faculty and staff who collectively picked up approximately 1,450 large bags of trash during the event to jumpstart the recovery process.
With the restoration of campus nearing completion, university departments have been able to reflect on the crisis and improve preparations for future crises.
“Social media is a much more important part of crisis response now than it was a few years ago, which became clear during the tornado," Jim Coll, Chief Communication Officer of University Communications, said. "For future university crisis response, communication through this medium will always to be an integral part. In some ways, this avenue has become even more important than mass media for our department during crisis.”
The university experienced a large increase in the number of followers on its social media pages as a result of the storm.
“During the tornado, we were able to update not only students and faculty, but parents and others out of town through our social media accounts," Olivia Ann Hurst, Social Media Specialist for University Communications, said. "Now that we know these audiences are looking to our social media updates at a high volume, we have established a foundation that we can build on for future crisis communication.”
The University Communications Department was presented an Award of Excellence by the Southern Public Relations Federation for its communication tactics during and after the storm.
“Eagle Alert,” the university emergency communication system to disseminate time-sensitive information via text and voice messages, has been updated in response to the tornado. Through use of the system, the university is able to inform the campus community of emergency situations quickly. The service was changed from an opt-in system to an opt-out service beginning on August 13, 2013. Previously, students, faculty and staff had to sign up in order to receive emergency alerts through the service. After recognizing the need to keep everyone better informed, the system was improved so that all members of the community receive alerts by default. Through use of the new opt-out system, participants can opt-out of cellular portions of the service, but participation by campus email is required.
Having experienced the storm from on campus, students now respond to severe weather warnings differently according to the USM Department of Residence Life staff.
“Prior to the storm we often had difficulties getting students to take emergencies seriously," Justin Long, Associate Director of USM Residence Life, said. "However, since the tornado affected campus, and many of our students were here to see the devastation and how serious it can be, they are much more responsive to our warnings.”
Students in the residence halls are now provided more information about severe weather preparedness during move in. Since the storm, residents now receive a handout specific to tornado, hurricane and other severe weather events to better prepare them should one impact campus again. Students were given emergency response information during the crisis prior to this tornado, but the Residence Life Department is now taking more proactive measures to keep students informed and safe preceding such an event.
As restoration of the campus comes to a conclusion, plans are currently underway to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the tornado, which happens to fall on Arbor Day 2015. Due to winning the Arbor Day Foundation Celebrate Arbor Day Event Contest recently, the university has been awarded $500 to aid in the celebration of its restoration process. As the Southern Miss community gathers for a day of remembrance, the replanting of three trees originally planted by a campus organization in 1980 will take place. With building reconstruction complete, the planting of these trees will serve as a symbol of restoration to its former beauty, bringing closure for those who call The University of Southern Mississippi home.
(The following photos display damage immediately following the storm accompanied by images of restoration progress as of November 2014.)