City of Pontotoc hardest hit; heavy damage throughout Lee and Pontotoc counties

By Sandi Pullen

Daily Journal

PONTOTOC - A tornado that touched down Saturday night left at least five dead and hundreds of homes destroyed.

"It started in the south part of the county and headed north," said Pontotoc County Sheriff Leo Mask. "A lot of houses were totally destroyed."

The East Tenth Street area was hit hardest, with residences at the top of the hill leveled by the tornado.

"The house rose up and we thought we were gone," said Loyd Berry, who was at his 158 E. Tenth St. residence with his wife and daughter when the storm began. "Then it just settled back down. We got cut getting out. You couldn't see, you know, and you'd fall and cut yourself on the glass."

Four of Berry's neighbors, Betty Clowers, 65; her son Donnie Clowers, 40; Michael Seale, 36; and Evan Nixon, 9, were not as fortunate, losing their lives in the twister.

"He suffocated," said Grace Berry, 10, of her closest neighbor, Evan. "He had his house crumble onto him."

Peggy Hester, age unavailable, also died in the tornado.

A block away from Tenth Street, Victory Baptist Church provided meals for local police, highway patrol troopers and agencies from several areas of Northeast Mississippi.

"It's primarily for workers," said Associate Pastor Neil Perry, "but folks who lost their houses can come here. We've been here since first thing this morning. We'll be here as long as we're needed."

The church itself suffered damage, losing, among other things, its steeple.

Throughout Pontotoc County, downed trees and power lines littered roads. Many churches opened their kitchens, providing food and shelter to emergency workers and neighbors who lost homes.

"We have sandwiches, food, water," said Emily Corder, a member of Algoma Baptist Church. "The church is open to anybody who needs help."

Two miles down the road from Algoma Baptist, a mobile home was torn from its original site and hurled more than 100 yards, landing upside-down. Personal belongings were scattered through the yard and in a pasture across the road. Two dogs and a cat pawed through the remains.

Among the homes destroyed was Lochinvar, a restored antebellum home listed in the National Register of Historic Places, owned by Dr. Forrest Tutor.

Thirty-three people came to Pontotoc Hospital on Saturday night, said Fred Hood, hospital director. Of those, five were dead on arrival and 10 were transferred to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, where 15 others had already come.

"Of the 25," said Len Grice, hospital spokesman, "12 were treated and released, one was sent to Elvis Presley Trauma Center in Memphis, a child went to Le Bonheur, two are in critical condition in our Intensive Care Unit and nine others are in satisfactory condition at the hospital."

One patient was admitted to the Pontotoc Hospital and 17 were treated and released.

"They were ranging from minor abrasions to lacerations," Hood said. "One may have had a fracture. We're still putting information together. We didn't have time to do a lot of detailed record keeping."

According to Pontotoc Police Capt. Jimmy Farris, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Mississippi Highway Patrol, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Public Service Commission, sheriff's departments in Alcorn and Lee counties, and volunteers from Union County and Houston were assisting.

"We were out early this morning with backhoes and saws to help with the cleanup," Farris said. "Ten to 15 houses up here were torn up or gone. I don't know how many there were total, but it's going to be up in the hundreds before it's all over."

Agencies including the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were in the area providing assistance where they could, Farris said.

The Salvation Army Disaster Canteens will be stationed at the Pontotoc National Guard Armory to help feed and provide disaster relief supplies to storm victims.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove flew over the area on Sunday to survey damage. He will meet with President Bush today as part of the governor's conference, and will present a damage report in hopes of receiving federal assistance, said the governor's spokeswoman Lisa Mader.

"We'll be in Washington tomorrow," said Kyle Steward, spokesman for U.S. Congressman Roger Wicker, R-Miss. "We're going to request that FEMA extend the incident period from last week. If that's done, assistance will be immediate."

Steward said when the request goes to Washington, Wicker and other U.S. congressmen from Mississippi will push for federal assistance.

"You don't appreciate the force of nature until you see houses ripped off their foundation and destroyed," Steward said. "Our mission is to try to speed the delivery of assistance as quickly as possible."

Lee supervisors meet

Lee County supervisors declared a state of emergency and asked the governor to do the same.

In emergency session Sunday afternoon, supervisors noted areas of north Lee County had sustained substantial damage from a tornado and severe thunderstorms.

"It definitely was a tornado," District 1 Supervisor Phil Morgan said of damage in Baldwyn, which suffered the brunt of damage in Lee County. Morgan said he believed the tornado generally stayed 20- to 30-feet above the ground.

"A lot of houses had trees across their roofs."

Only one injury was reported in Lee County and eight people were left homeless, Claudia Howard, clerk for the Lee County Emergency Management Agency, said. The injury was not believed serious.

"That's a blessing, that there's no loss of life," board President Tommie Lee Ivy said.

Power poles all along Baldwyn's Main Street were snapped off or bent at severe angles, Morgan said. He said early estimates of damage in Baldwyn topped $2 million, although it could run much higher.

Howard said 70 houses in Baldwyn sustained minor damage, another 26 suffered major damage and two were destroyed. The school's gymnasium roof was ripped away and other school buildings were damaged.

Eight homes and one business in Guntown were heavily damaged while 13 structures suffered moderate to minor damage, Howard said. In Saltillo, a mobile home was overturned and trees fell on a house and vehicle.

Morgan said county crews had been out since midnight Saturday helping clear away storm debris. Ivy said crews normally working elsewhere in the county would join the cleanup effort today.

"It could have been a lot worse than it was," District 2 Supervisor Bobby Smith said. "We were fortunate, really fortunate."

Baldwyn hard hit

On Sunday, the National Weather Service in Memphis sent a team of meteorologists to Pontotoc County and Baldwyn to survey the damage.

James Duke, meteorologist in charge and who surveyed the damage, said the Pontotoc tornado had winds up to 155 miles per hour.

Duke said according to the team's estimates the tornado that roared through the area was an F2 on the Fujita scale. This scale measures the wind speed based on the damage left behind.

An F2 tornado has wind speeds of 113 to 157 miles per hour and can do considerable damage. The highest ranking on the scale is an F5, which is labeled an "incredible tornado" and can reach wind speeds of 261 to 318 miles per hour. A tornado that killed 216 people in Lee and Itawamba counties in 1936 was ranked an F5 tornado.

"It was as you would expect for a violent springtime tornado," Duke said. "I'm surprised that the death total is as small as it is. I can only attribute that to the fact that people have learned through print media and television on the safety rules."

"This was a long track event," he said. "The thunderstorm system was tornadic throughout its life and sporadically produced tornadoes."

Duke said they began to track the storm in the Big Creek community in Calhoun County around 9:30 p.m. From there the tornado, which never touched the ground, moved northeast toward Algoma. It touched down briefly in Algoma destroying Industrial Components, a furniture manufacturing plant, he said.

It touched down again just south of the Pontotoc City limits about 10:05 p.m. and cut a path 23 miles long on the ground toward the northeast.

From there it went back up into the clouds but caused damage in the Endville community. It was spotted next, Duke said, in Guntown around Mississippi Highway 348. Baldwyn was its next destination and it touched down around 10:30 p.m. just southwest of the city along U.S. Highway 45 on Pratts-Friendship Road.

It skipped through town causing downed trees, power lines and peeled the roof off of the Baldwyn High School gym. The storm died out around Wheeler.

The storm system moved into Northeast Mississippi around 9:30 p.m. when a tornado warning was issued for Calhoun County. Tornado warnings were issued for Pontotoc County around 10:05 p.m. In Baldwyn residents began reporting severe weather and hearing sirens around 10:30 p.m.

Damage in Baldwyn was caused by a tornado ranked an F1 on the scale. An F1 is considered a weak tornado with winds from 73 to 112 miles per hour.

The thunderstorms moved into the area after causing damage in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Frazier said the system moved ahead of a cold front and started out as two lines of storms while in Arkansas. But as they neared Mississippi, he said, they merged into one line of storms.

In Union County, Linda Bond with the Red Cross said one mobile home was destroyed, one mobile home had major damage and there were nine single-family dwellings with minor damage. There were numerous homes reporting roof damage and broken winds.

No injuries were reported.

Daily Journal staff writers Eileen Bailey, Philip Moulden and Bobby Harrison contributed to this report.

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