It was unseasonably hot that day, with temperatures hovering in the upper-80s and a strong southerly breeze kicking up the autumn leaves and sending them skittering along the quiet Sunday streets.
After the sun set, the storms rolled in. And when the sun rose again, life had forever changed for residents across Columbus and throughout the South.
Nationwide, 64 tornadoes wreaked havoc on Nov. 10, 2002, killing 34 people and injuring 279. Three of those tornadoes roared through Lowndes County, following one after another like freight cars routed on a path of devastation.
Today, many survivors say the experience deepened their faith and redefined the meaning of home.
No way out
The first, and most devastating of the three tornadoes, developed southeast of Artesia at 7:08 p.m., swiftly intensifying to an F-3 on the Fujita scale.
Heather Hubbard remembers walking across the bedroom of her home on 11th Avenue South, intending to turn off the television. Her hand touched the dial and the world fell apart. It was 7:20 p.m.
She saw it before she heard it, stood transfixed in terror as the corner of her ceiling peeled back like the pages in a book, exposing nothing but blackness.
The wind threw her into the bedroom closet, where she clawed at the wall, at clothing, at anything she could lay her hands upon, trying to escape. But there was no way out; the only way through was to pray.
When she stepped out of the closet, she saw the contents of her living room in the front yard. All she could think about were her neighbors, many of whom were elderly. She was glad her two children were not home at the time.
She did not yet know that the tornado had carved a 29-mile path of devastation, injuring 55 people, destroying Stokes-Beard Elementary School and damaging 26 of 60 buildings on the campus of Mississippi University for Women — the third time in a decade that the W took the brunt of nature’s fury.
Rich Sobolewski, a student at the time, now works as the college’s webmaster. He remembers hearing the warnings as he ate supper with friends in Hogarth Dining Hall, but at the time, he was more concerned about a class assignment that was due.
Moments later, back in his dorm, he heard fierce wind and scraping metal. Nora Miller, senior vice president for administration, recalls walking onto campus the next day and seeing what resembled a war zone.
“There were pieces of roofing lying everywhere, limbs were down, trees were gone,” she said earlier this week in a press statement. “One scene I’ll never forget is the curtains of the destroyed gym flapping in the breeze.”
She walked to Hogarth, where Dave Haffly of campus dining services was sweeping up glass. He offered her a cup of hot coffee. And slowly, volunteers trickled in to restore order to an upside-down world.
Nowhere to hide
Allegra Brigham was at the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center with Nancy Carpenter the night the tornado struck downtown. At the time, Brigham worked in the public relations department for 4-County Power, and she and Carpenter were working on a newsletter together.
Petrified, Carpenter took refuge beneath the stairwell, but Brigham was mesmerized by the storm’s fury. She stood at the window and watched as a sheet of curled tin rolled down Main Street.
When the storm had passed, Carpenter received a phone call from her son, who said a tree had fallen on her historic home downtown. Together, she and Brigham fought their way to the house, dodging downed trees and debris.
Nearby, on Ninth Street South, Coolidge Perkins and his wife, Joyce, had huddled in their hallway, feeling the wind’s suction as it passed. Their house was spared. The home next door was destroyed.
Over on Alabama Street, Tommy Hinton was with his brother and two friends, driving back to Southside after a beer run.
He had just pulled up to a stop sign when he saw the tornado, which seemed to be lit from within and was growing closer by the minute.
He remembers asking his brother where they should hide, and then he remembers their van being lifted into the air.
“Lord have mercy and take care of us,” he thought.
He opened his eyes to a canopy of green — after their van hit the ground, a tree had crashed onto it. The arms of the tree seemed almost sheltering, like the arms of the God he had called upon in fear.
“The Lord said, ‘You can’t hide from me,'” Hinton recalls. “I believed in God, but that was an experience. It gives you a lot to think about.”
No place like home
Two other tornadoes crossed Lowndes County that night.
Around 7:36 p.m., an F-1 tornado developed southwest of New Hope, tracking into Pickens County at 7:45 p.m.
But just as it was leaving Lowndes, another F-1 tornado was entering. Spawned in Winston County around 7:20 p.m., the tornado ripped through Crawford, killing 54-year-old Willie James Hubbard (no relation to Heather Hubbard). The tornado left a five-county, 51-mile path of destruction and caused the only fatality of the six storms that hit Mississippi that day.
It changes you, to live through something like that, Heather Hubbard says. When the skies darken and it becomes rainy or windy, she heads to her mother’s house now. She is fearful of storms, but mostly she is afraid of being alone like she was the night her home was destroyed.
“I will never take a storm or bad weather for granted again,” she says. “You wake up one morning and it’s a pretty day, and you just thank God you’re above ground. You just don’t take life for granted anymore.”
She also has developed a deeper appreciation for the Southside neighborhood where she grew up. It’s about roots, she says. This is where her mother, her father and her grandparents stayed until the day they died.
After the tornado, she realized she didn’t want to leave either. She moved into a house adjacent to her former residence.
“You just don’t want to leave,” she says. “There could be better places elsewhere, but there’s no place like home. Everybody knows everybody; everybody knows whose child you are. They’ll say, ‘How’s your mama an ’em?’ That’s just the way it is over here. It ain’t no perfect neighborhood, and we have our share of problems, but we get past it because it’s home. And there’s no place like home.”
Dispatch pre-press manager Tina Perry contributed to this story.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.