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University loses shade — tornado fells majestic oak trees

HATTIESBURG — The tornado that tore through the Hattiesburg area and The University of Southern Mississippi campus on Feb. 10 did more than damage buildings. The F-4 twister also drastically altered the University’s landscape.

Approximately 75 trees that created a picturesque “front porch” of the campus were lost in the storm that cut a destructive path through Marion, Lamar, Forrest, Perry and Wayne counties. Among the casualties were three of the four majestic legacy oak trees that once adorned the Southern Miss vista.

Loren Erickson, superintendent of campus landscape at Southern Miss, watched the massive tornado from his home northeast of the University campus. After helping free a friend from a giant pine tree that had fallen onto her house, Erickson arrived at Southern Miss shortly after sunset to find the front part of campus in complete disarray.

“My initial thoughts were shock and amazement at seeing one of our largest, oldest live oaks blown up and all the other trees lying shredded in the road,” said Erickson. “When I saw it by the light of day, I was absolutely devastated. So much of USM, and the community as a whole, kind of identifies with the front of campus. I knew there would be a huge sense of loss.”

The giant live oak toppled by the tornado once shaded the popular tailgating area known as The District. Kenneth Rhinehart, adjunct professor of environmental science and a member of the University’s Tree Management Task Force, estimates the tree’s age at nearly 90 years.

“Someone asked me a year ago about the age of these live oaks and I told him I believe that they were planted in the 1920s,” said Rhinehart. “I’m glad I told him that because I counted the tree rings of an American elm that was sawed completely down after the tornado and the count was approximately 90 years. It is quite clear to me that this American elm and the oldest live oaks were purposefully planted when the campus was very young.”

Early photographs of the campus support this proposition. When construction of the original buildings began in 1910 the campus was covered with stumps of longleaf pines with no evidence of live oaks or elms at that time.

Rhinehart, who supervised a comprehensive tree inventory in 2011-12, noted that live oaks seem to withstand hurricane-force winds much better than those produced by a tornado.

“The long branches of the live oaks don’t handle the twisting motion of a tornado very well,” said Rhinehart. “Bald cypress, on the other hand, handled the tornado much better. They are found on the east side of Lake Byron in the front of the campus. Also, there are two young overcup oaks in front of the Ogletree House that appeared to withstand the wind much better than other species of oaks their age.”

And now begins the delicate process of restoration/replanting. Erickson explained that the action plan will involve ground repair, grading and irrigation repair. Drainage has been affected and must be improved so that any new or existing trees will not become too wet. Grass needs to be grown – whether sod or seed or a combination of both.

“There is such rich history and iconic views that need to be restored,” said Erickson. “We are keenly aware that there are specific images and memories for thousands of students, staff, alumni, visitors and the entire community.”

As for the famous Rose Garden that graces the front of campus, Erickson said some bushes incurred minor damage, but that “in a word, the Rose Garden is fine.”

Rhinehart actually sees a silver lining in the remnants left by the tornado, noting that Southern Miss officials now have a clean slate to implement a new plan.

“There are already a couple of plans for that part of campus on file. We will dust those files off and add our twist to the design,” said Rhinehart. “Science has a term for such an event – ‘punctuated equilibria,’ which means that things stay the same until a catastrophe and then a new order takes over. Well, a new order will take over, and everyone will be proud of the results.”


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