‘Where do we go to be safe from this point forward?’ USM professor relives twister terror


As a tornado hit the Pine Belt- area in the early morning of Jan. 21, the community was torn apart both physically and emotionally. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed and belongings were scattered like the families displaced by the storm.

This is a story of perseverance and of a community coming together.

“All of our good friends started showing up [the next morning] and our family,” said Hattiesburg resident Sandra Winstead. “The look on their faces – I hadn’t had a concept of what they had seen.”

The storm tied community members together more than it separated them.

“So many people came to help,” Sandra said. “Friends and people we know. There were people coming through our house, we had no idea — they just came to help. They ended up doing so much more than we would ever have thought.”

Various organizations and community members in Hattiesburg and surrounding areas like Petal went out on Sunday and throughout the week to help their neighbors.

Chris Winstead, a Southern Miss professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said he was thankful for the help from the USM community.

“People just came from everywhere,” Chris said. “People from our church, people from USM. People we didn’t even know. Our neighbor across the street is a pastor and one of his church members went over to work at his house, ended up coming over here and getting this big tree off of our house.”

Winstead and his wife were in their 8×4 bathroom when the EF-3 tornado hit their house. The next day, the ceiling was gone, and sunlight shone through the insulation in the living room and bedrooms.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Where do we go to be safe from this point forward?’” Chris said. “You knew it had to be bad because of all the insulation. [We] really [needed] get to someplace in our house to wait for daylight.”

Their main concern was the safety of their parents, who lived across the street and whose houses were unscathed by the storm.

“We immediately called both sets of parents because they’re really close to us,” Sandra said. “If there was someone’s house it needed to happen to, we’re glad it’s our house.”

Their house was the center of most of the recovery efforts in the neighborhood. No matter how much damage had been done to his house, Chris said that he is thankful that the only things lost were material possessions.

Their neighbor was not so lucky.

“I keep thinking on how thankful we are,” Chris said. “But the gentleman down the street — he lost his wife. Anytime you start feeling a little too giddy about [yourself ], it’s tempered though with the knowledge that not everybody was so fortunate.”