Then and now: Remembering the Jacksonville tornado, two years later

Scott Young, News Editor

March 19, 2018: a date that seems insignificant to many. However, it lives forever in the hearts and minds of students at Jacksonville State University and the Jacksonville community.

On that day, the unthinkable happened to our campus when an EF-3 tornado barreled through Jacksonville, turning the community on its head and causing around $100 million in damage.

The Reserve Apartments, Merrill Hall, Wallace Hall and the Alumni House: all declared total losses, with several other buildings severely damaged.

Two years later, JSU continues to recover financially from the structural damage caused by the tornado. For so many students, the horrific details of that day are never forgotten.

  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)
  • JSU and the surrounding community was hit by a EF-3 tornado on March 19, 2018, severely damaging 23 buildings and impacting 50 more. Thankfully, the spring break tornado did not result in any loss of life. (Matt Reynolds/JSU)

LaRavian Atkinson, a senior majoring in communication, said that she was in Oxford shopping in the afternoon prior to the tornado.

“Neither of us had a clue that a tornado was going to even happen,” said Atkinson. “The weather was sunny all day with an overcast so we didn’t think anything about bad weather.”

Later, Atkinson returned to Jacksonville with her friends. When the sirens went off, Atkinson said she thought it was a joke.

“When the sirens went off, we were at a friend’s apartment in Jacksonville behind the Chevron store that was destroyed,” said Atkinson. “When it was going through, we literally piled in the bathroom.”

After the power went out, she quickly realized the intensity of the situation.

“We were so terrified when the ceiling started caving in,” said Atkinson. “We started crying and trying to call our parents, but service was not picking up.”

Atkinson said that she lost her car and 90 percent of the stuff in her apartment at Gamecock Village, building four.

Hannah Phillips, a senior majoring in criminal justice, was a leasing agent for the Reserve Apartments. Phillips was not on campus at the time, but just like Atkinson, her way of life changed drastically.

“That evening, my phone kept going off with calls from my Reserve residents,” said Phillips. “I was receiving so many calls my phone actually shut off and wouldn’t turn back on. I was sent into panic mode when I woke up and saw my apartment on the news.”

Phillips said that she immediately drove back to Jacksonville to check on the apartments and felt like she was driving into a “war zone”.

“As I drove up, my manager met me at the entrance and she let me in,” she explained. “She walked me around the property and tears just flooded my eyes. What was once my home was now gone. Cars thrown into buildings, light poles on top of the buildings. It was so tragic.”

The main priority for Reserve Apartments, according to Phillips, was to let residents into their apartment, but the city of Jacksonville wouldn’t let anyone in the apartments for two weeks.

“Our residents were upset and broken, which made us [leasing agents] feel worse,” she said. 

When residents were finally allowed in the complex, Phillips and the leasing agents helped them pack and load belongings into their cars.

“At the end of the day, we all went into what once was our office and said goodbyes because we won’t be able to come back,” she said. “We weren’t just coworkers. We were family. We were all really thankful no one was hurt, but it still cut deep that the biggest part of our life was taken away in a matter of 20 minutes.”

Sydney Sorrells, an alumna of JSU, worked at the Reserve Apartments as well and also lived there. She was with her dog, roommates and boyfriend at the time the tornado hit.

“About five minutes before the storm actually hit everything went dark, the power went out,” said Sorrells.

When the power went out, many residents were unable to enter their apartment because the Reserve Apartments used an electric keycard system. Sorrells said that she rushed people unable to enter their apartments into her apartment.

“I had about thirty people and two dogs sheltering in my apartment,” Sorrells recalled.

After the tornado passed, residents of the Reserve Apartments gathered in the main office, but later noticed that the roof was beginning to collapse in.

“I was the last one out before the roof collapsed,” she said.

The next morning, Sorrells discovered that her car was hit by a nearby dumpster that was picked up by the tornado.

Though she lost her job due to the Reserve Apartments closing, today, Sorrells works as a leasing manager for The Alden, an off-campus apartment complex for students attending the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

Matthew Reeves, a senior majoring in music education, said that March 19 was just a normal day for him.

“Spring Break had just begun,” said Reeves. “My mom, being my weather source, had warned us that we could be getting bad storms. Little did we know how bad it would get.”

Reeves said that he was on the phone with his mother while her county was in the tornado warning polygon when the sirens went off in Jacksonville.

“My two roommates, two dogs and I crowded into our small closet of a bathroom,” he said. “It was the scariest day of my life. My mom stayed on the phone with me crying because of how scared she was for me. We could hear the “train” outside our house.”

After the tornado passed, Reeves went outside to assess the damage and found that there was none to his house. However, some of his friends were not as lucky.

“Many of my friends lived in the Reserves and Gamecock Village,” he continued. “It’s a day that I’ll never forget. I was scared for my own life as well as my friends.”

Though the stories and recounts of that day reminds students of a somber day in our community’s history, it is a reminder of how far we have come since.

We lost a lot that day. 

We lost the buildings we made memories in and we lost many trees that adorned our campus. However, that day, we lost no lives. 

Buildings can be reconstructed and trees can be replanted. 

Lives cannot.

The tornado that day may have displaced our homes, our campus buildings, our way of life; but it did not displace our hearts. It did not displace our love of this community and of JSU.

It made us stronger and served as a reminder of why we chose to attend JSU: because we are the friendliest campus in the South.

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