UA students return favor, help victims of Hattiesburg

It was like an eerie trip down memory lane when Elizabeth Kelly finally saw the destruction from the EF4 tornado that hit Hattiesburg, Miss., in February.

Now a sophomore majoring in early childhood and special education, Kelly narrowly avoided being caught in the calamity of the April 27, 2011, tornado.

“I was actually visiting campus the day before the tornado [in Tuscaloosa],” Kelly said. “I was able to come back in the summer for Bama Bound, and it was very strange. I saw that places like the gas stations I had been to were gone.”

This year, when the opportunity arose to spend her spring break aiding the affected areas of the Mississippi tornado with the University’s community service center, Kelly felt obligated to help.

“The main work we were able to do was help clear debris from the tornado,” Kelly said. “I was actually very surprised when we came across a FEMA worker who was surveying homes, and he said he hadn’t surveyed any on the next street. So it was a whole month where they weren’t doing anything.”

Jordan Colbert, a junior majoring in economics who accompanied Kelly on the trip, recalled driving down streets lined with piles of bricks and broken pieces of floors and roofs at the edges.

“Some spots you couldn’t tell anything had happened, and then we drove through others where it was like every single house had its roof ripped off,” Colbert said. “Some houses, the people can’t do anything, because their insurance company won’t comply. They say they have to have their people come out and see the damage themselves before anything can get done.”

While in Hattiesburg, Colbert volunteered at a church where, directly across the street, a house seemed to have caved in on itself.

“That part was literally a house crumpled into a pile,” Colbert said. “All you could see was the foundation and the steps, and behind that, the house was in one pile. While we were there cleaning the church, people would ride by there and take scrap metal.”

The trip was part of the Community Service Center’s alternative break program, in which students may spend their fall break, winter break, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, spring break or May Interim working on short-term projects addressing social issues like poverty and literacy.

On this trip, the volunteers stayed in Hattiesburg March 24-28. Once there, they divided into two groups, each deployed to the homes of private citizens, churches and nonprofit organizations. Their chief assignments were clearing debris and updating damage assessments, CSC director Kim Montgomery said.

“Being able to clean an area to completion was awarding,” Montgomery said. “Hattiesburg citizens were full of thank you’s. Appreciation always feels good.”

Colbert, who has volunteered with several organizations before, said she was humbled by the optimism she observed when helping residents clear the rubble from their yards.

“They were grateful for everything. You could tell they really appreciated it,” Colbert said. “They were just thankful that no one there had lost their lives. They understood that it was just the material things that they had lost.”

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