Matt Reed, Correspondent
Today marks the third anniversary of the EF-3 tornado that ravaged Jacksonville State University and the city of Jacksonville on March 19, 2018.
What was a seemingly normal spring break for college students quickly turned into a natural disaster that would affect the entire community for years to follow
The campus and community faced the strongest storm in the country in almost a year. No tornado of an EF-3 status or higher had been recorded in the nation since May, 2017, where two separate EF-3 tornadoes touched down in Kansas and Wisconsin.
The storm took several buildings on campus, including Merrill Hall, Wallace Hall, Mason Hall and the upper floors of the Houston Cole Library. Student housing including Logan Hall, Patterson Hall and off campus apartments also took catastrophic damage to both structures and individual property.
After the storm, over 2,000 residents were without power in the city of Jacksonville.
Although the many students at JSU during the storm have graduated, senior Caleb Howell recounts the experience. Howell was on a hurricane relief trip in Texas with a group of students from the Baptist Campus Ministries when he heard the news of the Jacksonville tornado.
“The day we got back it was so surreal because so much was just gone,” said Howell. “It was odd being in Texas helping to rebuild a town that had gone through something similar while it was happening back home.”
JSU political science professor Timothy Barnett recalls the experience as a resident of the community.
“Our family got a call as the tornado came through and our neighbors were huddled in their basement,” said Barnett. “They said that our neighborhood was being hit by the tornado and that they didn’t know what the outcome would be. But when we came back into town, I was stunned by the devastation.”
Barnett, like many in the Jacksonville community, took significant and costly damage to his home where he, his wife and children reside. Yet from the devastation came unwavering support in the earliest stages of the undoubtedly long recovery.
“Churches called upon their membership from all over the outlying area and these people rushed in with food, clothing, and supplies,” he said. “…There were hundreds of people here across the community helping people recover. While federal and state aid came, it was volunteerism that made the biggest difference initially.”
FEMA arrived in Jacksonville and soon after gave a $755,000 grant intended for cleanup and reconstruction.
The university adopted the slogan “JSU Strong” as a phrase to symbolize the strength of the campus, community and volunteers that had been and would continue to help in the recovery efforts.
In the fall semester of 2018, the university also hosted a recovery benefit concert, featuring country music artists such as Alabama, Charlie Daniels, Jamie Johnson, Riley Green and others. The concert raised nearly $1.3 million and all contributions went towards the recovery efforts.
“It was very nice to see our community come together again,” said Howell. “It was good to see that there were people that wanted to help and that humanity was willing to prevail again.”
The university’s reconstruction efforts on the campus and housing structures are complete with the exception of the construction of the new School of Business and Industry complex. The complex is expected to be completed in fall 2021.