“Rise to the top” is more than a motivational statement. It is a valued tradition at The University of Southern Mississippi. On Feb. 13, 2013, this deeply rooted tradition was tested by a powerful force of nature.
“My fiance was with me in Century Park Four when I realized it was real,” said Shanice Hicks, a junior restaurant, tourism and management major. “I was terrified.”
Last year’s devastating EF-4 tornado was real indeed, uprooting trees, damaging buildings and destroying the beauty of the campus.
“I was riding my bike back from the coffee shop when I saw the tornado steering towards me,” said Lindsey Pellittieri, a junior special elementary education major. “The world seemed as if it had stopped turning and I feared the worse for myself.”
Just three days before, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees (IHL) had named Rodney Bennett as the tenth president to lead the university. Bennett was to assume the president position later in the spring 2013 semester. But, the devastation from the tornado altered the original plan.
“April 1 was suppose to be my first, official day,” Bennett said at a press conference Friday. “However, in my heart, it was (Feb. 10) that I became the president.”
Bennett immediately took charge, providing support and encouragement to faculty, staff, students and residents of the Hattiesburg community.
“This is our institution,” Bennett said in an address to students before the campus-wide cleanup in 2013. “It is going to succeed or fail based on what we do. The university and Hattiesburg community believed in the concept to ‘rebuild, restore and recover.’”
Looking back one year ago today, through dedication and commitment, the restoration process is almost complete.
“We have made significant progress over the last year,” said Assistant Director of Marketing and Campus Relations, as well as director of Physical Plant, Michelle Shinall. “With nearly 30 facilities damaged, we are well on our way to having the majority of the repairs completed within 18 to 24 months from the date of the tornado.”
Within the last year, the demolition of Elam Arms, the Jazz Station, Leech House and Shafer Crisis have been completed. In addition, the turf at M.M. Roberts Stadium, the Honor House and College Hall have been repaired.
The Landscape Restoration and Enhancement Plan, the five-phase project to create views that highlight campus landmarks, has completed the Gateway and Rose Garden Phases due to donations to the Beautification Campaign.
“Through the tireless work of our staff and the genuine interest of the community, the finish line is on the horizon,” said Loren Erickson, superintendent of campus landscape. “We are actually starting to see the benefits of the work we have done.”
The Physical Plant is currently working on the Lake Byron Phase. The lake has been drained and cleaned from debris. Eventually, the lake will be slightly expanded and an honor wall will be added to recognize donors and other distinguished individuals.
The Mississippi Department of Archives in History approved an ADA accessible bridge for the lake as well.
The Ogletree House, one of the five original buildings on campus severely damaged from the tornado, is expected to be complete in June.
“After the tornado, alumni offices temporarily moved off campus,” said Laurie Benvenutti, manager of constituent relations for the Southern Miss Alumni Association. “Nevertheless, thanks to the Department of Residence Life, I could work from campus a few days each week in order to still be accessible to Legacy students.”
A portion of the offices are now open. Moreover, roof repairs to Marsh Hall and the Mannoni Performing Arts Center are near completion. Interior renovations and repairs will be completed in April. In addition, repairs to Southern and McLemore Halls will be completed in May or June.
“After the tornado struck, we made a decision to focus on areas that directly impact student instruction time,” Shinall said. “Thus, our team worked quickly to repair Marsh, Mannoni PAC, College Hall and Southern Hall, which allowed classes to resume quickly.”
Over the last year, students have gained a deeper appreciation for the university.
“This disaster taught me that Southern Miss is bigger than just an institution that provides degrees,” said Nicholas Fountain, a junior social work major. “This is my second home and seeing current and former students, faculty and staff respond to the disaster assured me of my decision on coming to this great institution.”
A tornado would not silence the “to the top” spirit of the Golden Eagle community.
“The university’s recovery from the tornado has been remarkable,” said USM Vice President of Student Affairs Joe Paul. “Our growth from this natural disaster speaks to our (resilience) that is at the heart of the Southern Miss community.”
This event has changed the face of campus forever, but also started a period of rejuvenation to better the quality of life at Southern Miss.