Thursday, June 18, 2009
‘It happened so fast’
By BARRY BURLESON
Sarah Sawyer knew a strong storm was approaching. She opened her front door for a look at the wind’s force.
“I heard a crack,” she said.
Her son Anderson was behind her, and she shouted, “Get back.”
They quickly crawled under the dining room table and heard another crash, Sawyer said.
In a matter of seconds a huge oak tree was uprooted and landed across the front of her house on Byhalia’s Church Street. Another tree in the backyard fell on her son’s truck.
“It’s the loudest noise I’ve ever heard,” Sawyer said. “God was here and I will tell you why. If I had stepped out on that porch, it would have hit my head. It happened so fast.”
Her story was just one of many in the Church Street and Highway 178 area of Byhalia. Approximate 100-mile-per-hour winds struck about 5 p.m. Friday, June 12. Trees were downed, several on houses. Utility poles snapped and lines fell. At least one business was destroyed.
Across the street from Sawyer, longtime neighbor and best friend Becky Hollingsworth said she just made it to the basement before the storm arrived.
“I started hearing windows break,” she said.
Her husband Don and son Boyce were in the kitchen area, where a limb crashed through a window.
“We thought it was just one tree,” she said.
Instead the storm got 15 trees on their property, one landing on Don’s work vehicle. One cedar was about 160 years old.
Further east on Church Street Vulna Smith summarized the thoughts of residents as help arrived Saturday morning to cut up downed trees in her yard.
“We’ve all been lucky so far,” Smith said. “As far as I know, nobody is hurt.
“I’ve been counting my blessings every time we have one of these storms come through.”
Across the street from Smith, a family was trying to salvage personal belongings out of a house smashed by a fallen tree. Fortunately, they had just left the home when the storm hit.
“Getting some clothes out is good,” said Carolina Cervantes, “because we don’t have anything else.”
Byhalia Police Chief Gary Looney surveyed the damage Saturday morning via a small utility vehicle delivered by the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department.
“Look at that tree, how it is twisted,” Looney said. “It’s not consistent with straight-line winds. By the shape of things, I believe it to have been a tornado.”
He said Friday evening when the storm struck he pulled his patrol car under a car wash.
“It pushed my car out from under it,” Looney said.
He said the town had a “major gas leak” at Edwards Road and 178 plus another gas leak near the west end of Church Street. Many residents had to be evacuated Friday night.
Part of Highway 178 in the city limit was shut down during the weekend to replace several utility poles, he said.
“We have no report of injuries – thank goodness,” Looney said.
Providing an update Monday, the police chief said 18 homes received major storm damage, 16 had minor damage and three homes were completely destroyed. Seven businesses suffered major damage, four had minor damage and one business was completely destroyed. The Car Wash (formerly Castleberry’s service station) at the intersection of Church and Highway 178 was demolished.
He said the Byhalia Cemetery was damaged by downed trees, plus Northeast Mississippi Health Care on East Brunswick was damaged.
He said the sheriff’s office quickly exemplified teamwork by providing its mobile command center.
“They were a blessing to us,” Looney said.
He also said other fire departments in the county assisted the Byhalia Fire Department and his department following the storm.
“They stepped up and helped us tremendously, and we appreciate it,” Looney said.
He also said MedStat placed an ambulance in Byhalia.
“Some of our residents are on oxygen and when we lost power, it put them at risk,” Looney said.
Hollingsworth and Sawyer thanked the many volunteers who assisted Byhalia families.
“It’s amazing how people were helping,” Sawyer said. “It is so awesome how the people pull together during trying times. This is the true meaning of community. We are so blessed.”
Hugh Hollowell, county emergency management coordinator, was on the scene in Byhalia Friday just minutes after the storm hit and then back Saturday.
“We’re still evaluating, but, it looks likely mainly straight-line winds,” he said as he walked along Church Street Saturday morning taking pictures. “Those tall, wet trees came up from the roots.
“This is the oldest part of town and a beautiful area. This will definitely change the landscape of Church Street.”
He said small buildings for sale at Marv’s Mini Barns were blown into the middle of Highway 178 Friday night.
“Our chief concern was injuries,” Hollowell said. “So far we have no reports.”
He also said he had some reports of damage in other parts of Marshall County, particularly the Bethlehem area.
An F-2 tornado with approximate 120-mile-per-hour winds hit Olive Branch a bit earlier Friday.
“I’m not sure if they’ve determined if a tornado or straight-line winds hit Byhalia, but the damage was the same as far as extent,” said Kevin Doddridge, general manager of Northcentral Electric Power Association.
He said 10,000 consumers in DeSoto and Marshall counties were without power Friday night.
“We worked through the night and got that number down to about 4,000 by Saturday morning,” Doddridge said.
Crews from Greenwood, Hollandale, Yazoo City and Columbus assisted Northcentral.
“As of Sunday morning, we had 750 consumers without power,” he said. “We still had big problems in the downtown areas of Byhalia and Olive Branch.”
As of Monday morning, the number was down to 250, Doddridge said, and of those, probably 150 were in Olive Branch.
Keith Taylor, District 3 Marshall County supervisor, thanked his fellow county leaders for helping clean up in Byhalia after the storm. He said many citizens expressed their appreciation for the county road and bridge department’s help under the supervision of Larry Hall. Crews worked around the clock, he said.
“They are very impressed with how the crews worked and everything was so organized on our part,” Taylor said at the Monday board meeting. “Larry did a good job keeping it flowing.”
One family went to the grocery store and came back home and their house was destroyed, Taylor said. He said their trip to the grocery had probably saved their lives.
Hall said media reports, as the storms came across the country from Arkansas, said the storm had straight-line winds of up to 100 miles per hour. He said the straight-line winds were consistent with the type of tree damage seen in Byhalia. Tornadic winds typically wring trees off at the 12 to 15 foot level, he said. These trees were all lying uprooted to the east, he said.
Supervisor George Zinn III added, “I express my pleasure (at the good job done by the county workers).”
Phil Malone, mayor-elect in Byhalia, sent an informal letter of thanks to the board of supervisors for assisting in the cleanup effort. It was read at the meeting Monday.
“We need to thank the volunteer fire departments; they all helped,” supervisor Eddie Dixon added.
Supervisor Ronnie Joe Bennett thanked sheriff Kenny Dickerson for sending deputies to ride the roads in his district, looking for damages.
Hall said 1,000 cubic yards of debris had been hauled away from the damaged areas in Byhalia by Sunday afternoon and that he estimates there is another 1,000 cubic yards of debris left to haul off.
Taylor noted that the town of Byhalia, Northcentral electric crews, the fire departments and the county crews all went to work to get the area cleared. He estimated that 150-200 people came to help clean up yards.
Hall estimated there would be several million dollars worth of damage.
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