Loren Erickson watched from his Hattiesburg home that Sunday in February as an EF-4 tornado ripped through the heart of the Hub City. He feared the worst.
“I could see the debris raining out of the top of the tornado — I knew it was going to be bad,” Erickson remembered.
After freeing a person who was trapped in their home, Erickson sped to the University of Southern Mississippi where he serves as superintendent of campus lands. The university had been heavily impacted, especially USM’s “front porch” — the main entrance into the campus off of Hardy Street that features the university’s rose garden and lake.
“I was shocked,” Erickson said. “Our oak trees were gone, one broken off at the trunk. I had put out some benches and created a great place where the faculty and students liked to sit. It is a mud hole now. It was just total destruction.”
In all, USM lost approximately 75 trees, including many “legacy” live oaks that dated back nearly a century, and the landscape was left in tatters.
Now less than three months later, Erickson is part of a team charged with giving the Hattiesburg campus a new “face.” Well into an emergency management plan drawn up in the aftermath of the twister, he sees it as an opportunity.
“It’s like a clean slate,” he said. “You don’t often get an opportunity like this — a total redo. We can do anything we want, because it’s all gone.”
The EF-4 tornado formed Feb. 10 just west of Hattiesburg and, after roughly paralleling Hardy Street/U.S. Highway 98, crossed that roadway at Elam Arms residence hall just west of the main USM entrance.
While causing extensive damage and some injuries across the greater Hattiesburg/Petal area, there were no fatalities.
USM officials’ first task was getting the campus back in shape so classes could resume. Four days after the storm, the students were back.
By then, however, it had become clear that USM’s main gateway was going to have to be completely rebuilt, a project that was going to require significant resources.
Two factors have helped spur that work along. With only $250,000 worth of insurance coverage for landscaping, the university needed funds for the makeover that is expected to cost approximately $3 million. The USM Alumni Association immediately put up $100,000, and the USM Foundation launched the Southern Miss Campus Beautification Campaign.
Keeping the plan flexible, the project’s phases have not been numbered, but rather named, as officials are executing the work as the money is received.
The second factor in the project’s fast-track progress is the university’s relationship with Neel-Schaffer Inc. The Jackson-based engineering firm, which offers a full slate of emergency management services, was already working projects on campus when the tornado hit.
“That was huge,” said Erickson. “Neel-Schaffer already knew where all the ‘skeletons’ were on campus, how it drains, etc. For example, I needed some surveying of the front of the campus — they had already done it. Sent me a PDF that day — free of charge.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that our familiarity with the university and relationship with the people there is a significant asset,” said Russ Bryan, landscape engineer with Neel-Schaffer and the firm’s leader on the USM project.
Within days of the storm, USM and Neel-Schaffer started working on a comprehensive plan for restoring the landscape. The plan passed with USM administrators and committees, and was unveiled in mid-April.
Since the gateway of the campus was most heavily impacted and is most visibly noticeable, it is getting reworked first.
With debris cleared, infrastructure work, mainly in area of irrigation and drainage, are currently underway.
In the meantime everyone is gearing up for the arrival of the trees. Hand picked in Florida by Erickson and Bryan, USM is shipping in mature live oaks to shade the front porch. Again fast-tracked, Bryan said the goal is to have the trees in the ground by spring commencement, which is May 10.
The placing of the trees is aimed at enhancing the view of College Hall, Southern Hall, Aubrey K. Lucas Administration Building, Ogletree Alumni House (significantly damaged) and Lake Byron.
The plan also includes smaller tree plantings, shrubs, flowers as well as improved sidewalks and access to the lake and All American Rose Garden, a long-time campus landmark.
Once the Gateway Phase is complete, officials will move on to the District Phase, which will entail more irrigation system work, tree plantings and lawn restoration.
It will be followed by the Lake Byron Phase, which will encompass the lake’s expansion and development into a catch basin for stormwater as well as new fountain, trees, bridge, sidewalk and retaining wall.
The numerous other phases with titles such as Hardy West and East, Marsh, Rose Garden and Highway 49. All involve more landscaping and infrastructure.
“We’ve tried to approach this project like we always do — listen and be a partner with your client,” Bryan said. “I’m please with the progress that’s been made so far.”