WCU looks back at year after tornado

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Never has a university suffered so much damage from a natural disaster as William Carey University did almost exactly a year ago when an EF-3 roared over the campus on the morning of Jan. 21, 2017, destroying or damaging every building on campus.

WCU Provost Scott Hummel said every phase of the university was affected by the massive storm.

“This tornado caused more than $100 million in damage,” he said. “At Union (University in Jackson, Tennessee), they lost residence dorms, but they still had classrooms. We lost every aspect of every department including the dormitories from the tornado.”

An EF-4 tornado ripped through Union University in 2008, flattening several housing facilities and trapping some students for hours in collapsed buildings. Union resumed classes two weeks later and built 14 new student housing buildings before the fall 2008 semester.

However, with every department affected, William Carey officials faced a daunting problem, Hummel said.

“The storm put into jeopardy whether we were going to finish the spring term and be able to start the fall term,” he said. “And what about all those students that were planning to graduate?”

Getting the students able to return to campus was also a daunting task, Hummel said.

“We had 106 vehicles that were damaged during the tornado,” he said. “Without those cars, those books and those computers, some students had to decide whether they would be able both physically and financially to return to school. Without a car, they wouldn’t be able to get back.”

However, Hummel said the community pulled together and provided the funds to replace all of the items that were damaged in the tornado.

“They realized that if there was a chance that someone wasn’t able to come back to school, they probably wouldn’t be able to return later,” he said.

One area that helped William Carey carry on its administrative duties was the school’s online presence, especially registration.

“We were determined that while the campus was closed, we were going to get as much accomplished as we could,” Hummel said. “Fortunately, our online registration took a lot of the burden off. As a matter of fact, we actually increased our enrollment while the school was being rebuilt after the tornado.”

Hummel said the determination by the school leadership, the staff, the students and its supporters led the school to overcome the obstacles presented by the tornado.

“We looked at each step of the process to see how we could get through the spring semester,” he said. “We didn’t think we could do it. But when we found a Bible opened to Psalm 46, we knew that we could.”

Hummel said Psalm 46 described the tornado and gave school leaders the inspiration to achieve their success. The scripture says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. … The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Hummel said the school leaders started to prioritize the tasks that were needed to get the students back in classes. Facilities were made available by the University of Southern Mississippi, and several local churches and other schools provided space for the music, art and business departments, among others.

“We began to understand that the university isn’t the buildings,” Hummel said adding that the university has returned physically. “Essentially, everything has been repaired. We are purely in the construction phase right now.”

Because of the tornado and the redesign of some buildings, Hummel said 42,000 square feet is now available for more construction.