4 dead mourned in Mississippi storm as living begin recovery

Published 9:18 am Monday, January 23, 2017

PETAL (AP) — Cynthia Holland has to repair her liquor store. William Carey University has to find a place to hold classes. Michelle Kirk has to allay her 11-year-old daughter’s anxieties while living in a damaged house.

And families will mourn four people who died after a tornado with winds above 136 mph tore a 25-mile path across southern Mississippi before dawn Saturday.The Forrest County coroner identified the dead as Earnest Perkins, 58; Cleveland Madison, 20; David Wayne McCoy, 47 and Simona Cox, 72.

Monica McCarty lost her father — Perkins — who died in the same Hattiesburg trailer park where she and her boyfriend live. Madison, her son, was apparently crushed to death while in bed at her mother’s house where he lived.

Standing amid the tornado’s carnage, McCarty wept as her boyfriend, Tackeem Molley, comforted her.

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“They couldn’t get him out of the house. They said he was lying in the bed,” McCarty said of her son.

Molley said he and McCarty were in a trailer when the storm hit. Molley, whose bare foot was bandaged, said he climbed out through a hole in what had either been the trailer’s roof or wall.

“I had a little hole I could squeeze out of,” he said.

The living are beginning to look toward recovery. That task will be steep in Petal, a city of 10,000 people across the Leaf River from the larger Hattiesburg.

Residents of the two cities are no strangers to tornado recovery following a February 2013 tornado that plowed through the area. But Petal Mayor Hal Marx says that for his city, Saturday’s storm was more severe than the one four years ago. Early estimates show more than 300 homes and 30 businesses were damaged in Petal alone. Hundreds of more structures, including almost every building on the campus of William Carey University, were damaged in Hattiesburg.

“It’s devastating,” Marx said Saturday.

The 54-year-old Holland had hoped the Wine Cellar would be a good investment for her retirement.

“We just purchased this business on July 29 and totally remodeled it,” Holland said. “It was all looking really nice, but it’s not anymore.”

By Saturday evening, Holland had tarped the damaged roof. But she’s worried about water damage, looting and collecting insurance. And her three employees may go without work while she rebuilds.

The losses are closer to home for Michelle Kirk, who has lived for five years in a Petal subdivision. She was looking at squatting in a damaged house that may be without power for as long as a week. At dusk Saturday, more than 6,000 people were without power in Forrest and Lamar counties. Utilities were warning that restoration could take days because of damage to transmission lines, even as crews worked into the night.

Early Sunday, the National Weather Service confirmed a tornado near Nashville, Georgia, and officials said more severe weather was possible.

Kirk said her 15-year-old daughter Kimmie burst into her parents’ room to warn that her phone was sounding a tornado warning. Kirk hustled her children into a closet, and soon followed them in with her husband.

“As soon as we did, I heard glass breaking,” Kirk said. “I had debris — leaves, roof tiles, anything you can think of — in my kitchen.”

One sharpened piece of wood shot through the roof and landed on the bed where her younger daughter would have been sleeping. That daughter was clinging to her mother as the sun set Saturday, in a subdivision where every house was seriously damaged — some obviously beyond repair.

William Carey sent students home from the campus where 3,200 of them study and 800 live. Spokeswoman Mia Overton says school officials hope to restart classes in borrowed space at the University of Southern Mississippi or at Pearl River Community College while the campus is repaired.

Tegan Sager, a freshman from Hermiston, Oregon, said she’d never been in a tornado before. She said bursts of lightening lit the campus just before the tornado hit. She and 20 other students huddled in the first-floor dorm hallway, cradling their heads in their hands.

“That’s when the panels from the roof were falling in,” she said. “Girls were screaming and a person next to me got cut on the leg.”

Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney says insured damages will likely top $200 million.