USM, Hattiesburg Begin Recovery

The University of Southern Mississippi campus was a center of activity Monday as local and state emergency officials began assessing damage from an EF-3 tornado.

At least three counties, Forrest, Lamar and Perry, have serious damage and injuries.

The south end of the USM campus has the appearance of a rainy wasteland. The students are gone and so is much that made this gateway into the school so beautiful. Where a scenic view once met visitors, now only downed trees and destroyed buildings stand.

Six university buildings were seriously damaged, in an area near Hardy Street. Newscenter 11 talked to students who have classes in those buildings.

"I was very, very sad this morning," said Dylan Scroggins, a USM student. "I didn't want to get up, after hearing that my home was destroyed."

The storm presents an unexpected first challenge for the school's new president, Dr. Rodney Bennett.
He hasn't even started work yet, but he rushed to the school from his home in Georgia as soon as he found out.

"I told my wife, I'm going to Hattiesburg. And she said, how are you going to get there? And I said, I'm driving, and she said, what if the roads are closed? And I said, we'll figure that out when we get there. But I knew this is where I needed to be and I got here as quickly as I could," said Bennett.

When Bennett arrived, he found people already at work including interim president Dr. Aubrey Lucas.
He says people from all over the state and country have already pledged their help in getting USM back on its feet.

"The response has been absolutely heartwarming," said Lucas. "We have had messages from the presidents in this state, community colleges as well as university presidents saying, how can we help? We've had alums, we've had friends from all over the United States."

And Lucas' optimism seems to be a running theme at the school though there are great difficulties still to come. Many just seem glad things weren't even worse.

"It was a long night, a long day in general," said LaDonna Reese, USM student. "But I'm happy we're all safe here on campus."

The good news is there were no injuries on campus. Almost all of the students were gone for the Mardi Gras holiday. School was not going to re-open until Feb. 13 anyway. Now it will be Thursday, Feb. 14.


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