By BECKY GILLETTE
PETAL — It will take a long time for Petal businesses and homeowners to recover from the devastating EF3 tornado Jan. 21. Petal Mayor Hal Marx estimates 350 homes were damaged or destroyed.
“About 30 businesses, including 19 in a major shopping center, were destroyed,” Marx said. “We do not have any damage cost estimates for Petal yet, but it will be a very high amount.
“The city is waiving all building fees and permit fees for residents and business owners who must rebuild from the storm. We have also waived all late fees for our water and sewer customers.”
Marx said their police officers and firemen worked quickly after the storm struck on Jan 21. to get to those trapped and to check for injuries. A curfew was imposed for the first four days after the storm to help permanent looting.
Forrest County District 3 Supervisor Burkett Ross represents the Petal area and owns a bowling alley, Southern Lanes, on South Main Street that lost its roof during the tornado. His family has operated a skating rink and bowling center in that area since 1958.
Ross said they now have a new measure to judge the severity of tornadoes.
“We had a tornado in 2013 and we thought that was the most terrible thing in the world,” Ross said. “It was very small compared to this storm. In the affected area, it was just total devastation. It is a miracle that no one was killed. You had to see it to understand how strong that storm was.”
While cleanup is a daunting task, Ross said in just the first four days the county used 10 trucks and 25 men to remove 2,700 cubic yards of debris.
“That was just in one small area,” he said.
Ross said they have been heartened by all the help coming from outside.
“Mississippi might not be on the top in every aspect of life,” he said. “But when it comes to stepping up and helping each other, I think we are at the top. People have driven long distances to help us. We are so thankful for that.”
Valerie Wilson, executive director of the Petal Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed the damage from the most recent storm was far more than the February 2013 storm.
“This makes the 2013 tornado look like nothing,” said “Our businesses were terribly affected. It is really devastating. And I think it is going to throw us for a loop for several months in terms of sales tax revenues which, of course, pay many city expenses. When you have that many businesses totally shut down, that is going to hit us hard.”
Wilson said there will be a significant impact in terms of sales taxes even though some stores like the Walmart Supercenter closed for only a couple of days. Even businesses without damage didn’t have electricity, and so were unable to open.
Some businesses were adequately insured, but others either didn’t have insurance or are finding out they didn’t have enough, Wilson said. For example, they might not have had business interruption insurance to pay salaries and bills while the business is closed.
“Some of the things you don’t think necessary in a policy, consider it again,” she said. “If you are shut down for six months, how are you going to survive? I’m sure at this point some businesses are wondering how they are going to make it back.”
The chamber is working to assist businesses that might want to reopen quickly in a temporary location.
“We are trying to take an inventory of empty locations around town for those who might want to set up a temporary home until they can reopen at their former location after repairs are completed,” Wilson said. “Some want to keep things going, particularly those without insurance who have to stay in business. Those with good insurance don’t feel as much a hurry.”
Wilson recommends businesses regularly check to see if their insurance is adequate.
“Insurance seems to eat you alive,” she said. “No one likes paying insurance payments until this kind of things happens. And then you feel very grateful that you had insurance and were up to date on your premiums.”
Wilson also cautioned businesses considering taking the insurance settlement and not reopening.
“Remember, you are going to be taxed on the insurance settlement,” she said. “So you are not going to net what you think from cashing out your policies.”
For many of the businesses affected, the destruction was total. The entire Eastbrook shopping center was demolished.
“That whole strip mall is going to have to be totally rebuilt,” Wilson said. “It will take a minimum of six months to rebuild our businesses and, in many cases, it will take much longer. The ones I feel for the most are those who lost both their homes and their businesses. We had 300 homes destroyed, so it just been quite difficult for our community still recovering from a tornado in 2013 that followed very nearly the same track.”
Wilson said a lot of businesses destroyed Jan. 21 also received damage in 2013. The Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church on Highway 42 had a ribbon cutting for a new facility in 2016.
“And it was hit again,” Wilson said. “This isn’t fair.”
Wilson said the outpouring of support after the storm has been overwhelming.
“I have a friend who lost his house,” she said. “He finally had to tell people to go away because he had too many people trying to help. After the storm, we saw individuals go out with chain saws to cut up trees and remove them from the road. Less than a day after, almost every road was back open. Volunteers removed enough debris that it enhanced the ability to get rescue workers and utility teams in there. It has been amazing.”
One faith-based organization that has come to help is Samaritan’s Purse, which also helped in the 2013 tornado aftermath.
One church has been turned into a temporary school. Wilson said volunteers moved desks and supplies from the damaged Petal Upper Elementary to the Petal Harvey Baptist Church where Sunday school rooms have been turned into classrooms, and the fellowship center is being used to serve meals.
“They had kids in there Tuesday which, once again, was amazing consider the amount of work that had to be done,” Wilson said.
The city has received a lot of supplies donated in the wake of the storm.
“What we need now is cash,” Wilson said. “Please consider making a contribution to the Greater Pine Belt Community Foundation, which is going to distribute the funds.” For more information, call 601.583.6180 or visit pinebeltfoundation.org.