Petal took the brunt of storm damage across the Pine Belt Wednesday morning as remnants of Hurricane Harvey blew through the area.
Straight line winds or a tornado caused damage on West Central Avenue between Hwy. 11 and Main Street as heavy rain and winds were followed by blue skies, humidity and intermittent sprinkles. And swarms of love bugs, a reminder of Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago Tuesday.
A preliminary estimate is an EF0-EF1 tornado, according to Glen Moore, director of the Forrest County Emergency Agency, “but the National Weather Service will have to verify its intensity with a site visit in the next day or two.” He said the only reported damage was two businesses and a house hit by a tree.
Mayor Hal Marx and his town has become quite experienced in the storm department.
He said when the report was first given over the police radio, it sounded as if there was a tornado on the ground at Main and Central.
“My first thought was, ‘not again.’ I expected there to be severe damage to the heart of our city, so I was relieved when I saw that it was minor. Everyone takes the threat of tornadoes seriously in Petal. We have seen what they can do.
“We had minor damage in the area of West Central Avenue,” he said. “There was some roof damage to the old Pizza Hut building and Kittrell Industrial Supply. We had at least two power lines down and at least two large trees knocked down, as well. It appears that the tornado formed over Petal, but never touched down. It looks as if the damage was from straight-line winds, not from a tornado rotating on the ground. We were very fortunate and I am thankful no one was reported injured.”
Jeff Davis of Davis Glass, whose shop is located across the street from the old Pizza Hut building, was atop an 8-foot ladder making repairs to a large plate glass window that had blown out at his business. It was just six months ago that Davis was making repairs to his own home following the Jan. 21 tornado that did extensive damage to both Petal and Hattiesburg.
Davis wasn’t quite sure what it was that caused the damage – a tornado or heavy winds., “We don’t know,” he said. “We were standing inside and it started raining and then it quit raining, and got quiet and still then all of sudden... I went to shut everything off and that was it. It was over with.”
Davis’ wife, Cori, and little girl were in the back under a table that the men had placed racks on and around to protect them.
“As soon as it cleared out I took them home to the basement, Davis said, noting that his little girl mentioned his driving and urgency to get them to a safe location.
At Kittrell Industrial Supply, just a parking lot over from the glass company, a man was on the roof where the businesses air conditioner had been picked up and moved.
Inside, Trace Morris, an employee, was picking up debris amid water-soaked floors. Merchandise from the front corner of the building had been moved and was secured as water fell through the soaked ceiling tiles.
David Kittrell, owner of the business, wasn’t in the building at the time, but across town. But Morris was.
“I was just coming back from lunch,” he said. “It hadn’t picked up much debris yet, but had just picked up debris across the street, and you could see big limbs swirling. About that time there went the air conditiong units and as soon as it was here, it was gone. It was just real quick. It was like it was just jumping.”
The damage to the structure’s front corner was caused when the air conditioning units atop the building were pulled up before being sat back down.
“It laid down two trees out back and snapped a gas meter bolted down on the side of the buildin,” he said. “Nobody was hurt and that’s all you can ask for.”
Kittrell was just thankful there were no injuries. “The good Lord blessed us and nobody was hurt and that’s the biggest thing,” he said.
“It picked up the air conditioner unit and the gas meter was on the roof. The gas man already came and got it. The only way that could have happened is if it lifted the ac unit up and slammed it back down, and threw the gas meter up there.”
Kittrell says the storm and damage won’t keep them down.
“We made some sales just a few minutes ago,” he said laughing. “The computer is up and running. The only thing it’s going to be is construction-wise, rebuilding the top. The brick sides are fine; it’s just the roof and air conditioning units. It’s going to be hot for a while,” but he’s been through that before.
Across the street at NAPA, cars on the lot to be worked on were littered with debris and fresh green leaves from the nearby trees. Randy Ingram, who works at the business, recalled what he witnessed.
He said the initial blast sucked limbs, pinestraw and stuff off the street into a funnel. “It started pulling me, so I grabbed hold of the building,” he recalls. “Other people ran inside, one got in a truck, others inside the building and shut the doors. I couldn’t move I had to watch it.”
Ingram was standing inside one of the bay doors on the east side of the structure as the storm blew by. “It came down right over there,” he said pointing to a spot out in the street. “You’ve seen like everything get dark and it just sucked up and tires started falling off the tire rack. As soon as it started to calm down it picked back up and I had to grab with two hands as it started pulling me back. I had a hold of the I-beam. I was hanging on and it was pulling me back. My feet were almost off the ground, It took about everything I had (to hold on).”
He said as soon as the storm started tapering off, he let go of the wall and looked over and saw it crossing over the street. It took part of the roof and uprooted trees in the back and everything. It was crazy.
Ingram said he didn’t think about fear. “It was such an amazing site. I hope nobody got hurt, but it was just an amazing sight to see the fury of God. That’s basically what it was. There’s nothing to explain anything like that and the sucking, the sound, it was like the biggest vacuum cleaner in the world, because everything off the street was cleared, everything.”
While the debris was flying, Ingram said he had to stand behind the wall at times. “You can see all the little dents and scratches on the shop and leaves all over the side of the building and the cars, I just kind of ducked behind as the main force came by,” he said. “I got hit by some, but when the big stuff came, I moved.”
The storm lasted a good minute or minute and a half, from start to finish, according to Ingram. “It felt like forever,” he said. “I saw the tree behind us and watched it break in half and fall on the house next door. As it (the storm) crossed the street, I saw the tree behind it. I heard the roots of the tree cracking and watched it fall. The ground shook when it hit and then a gas line busted back there and you heard it and then I heard a transformer blow.”
Ingram said there was no time to be scared. “I just made sure everyone was fine inside and I was just checking on the outside.”
And while he wouldn’t want to do it all over again, not by choice, he said he would like to see it again. “It was a spiral coming up just like in the movie Twister; the spiral took all the water in the street and made that spiral. It was amazing.”
Ingram noted the eerie silence was followed by sunny, bright skies.
“It was beautiful outside, like nothing happened,” he said. “I told everybody to watch out. It was loud and the suction was breathtaking. I could hardly breathe. Everybody says it’s like a train, but it was more like an Amtrak coming by.”
He said the other people at the business were hunkered down in the building, behind desks or in vehicles.
School administration and faculty across the district face many difficult decisions when severe weather strikes in such close proximity. However, Petal School District Superintendent Dr. Matt Dillon said Forrest County Emergency Management aided them in making those decisions throughout the day Wednesday.
Dillon said he worked closely with Emergency Management staff and took their recommendations to determine whether or not to release students early and when it was safe for students to leave the hallways and return to classes.
At press time on Wednesday, Dillon said the Petal School District had plans to continue with its regular schedule on Thursday.
The 3D Dyslexia School, a block east of the NAPA building, also suffered minor damage, according to director, Dr. Cena Holifield.
She said the children were in their safe space throughout the morning.
“The teachers kept them calm and they did not realize how close the tornado came until much later,” she said. “Other than losing roof shingles, the school building seems fine.”
Trees and power lines were down on Oak Street, which is the street used to enter the school for drop off and pick up. “We were very blessed to have been spared major damage,” she said. “ We released the students early due to the threat of more bad weather.”
A decision was to be made Wednesday evening as to whether it was safe to return to school today (Thursday). “We will watch for weather conditions,” she said. “We do not want students to spend another day in the safe space. It is difficult on them and our staff.”
Both the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University cancelled classes Wednesday afternoon, which were to resume at normal times this morning. Pearl River Community College cancelled late afternoon and night classes on its Forrest County campus.
Stormy weather spawned by Hurricane Harvey is to continue throughout South Mississippi through today.