Jeff Revette ran from his car and lay face-down in the grass next to the red-brick wall of a church as a tornado roared toward him, with debris scattering and electrical transformers exploding. Twenty seconds later, bricks were strewn across a flattened pickup truck a mere 10 feet away amid toppled trees and power lines.
Revette, a 43-year-old National Guard soldier who returned from a deployment to Afghanistan about a year ago, stood up unharmed. A woman who had been driving the smashed pickup and had taken cover near him was pinned by some insulation and other debris, but she was OK after Revette lifted the wreckage off her.
"It's just amazing," he said. "God is real. I am one blessed man."
The powerful twister tore a path across at least three counties, injuring more than 80 people — but residents marveled that no one died. Officials said several circumstances converged to ensure no lives were lost in what should have been a deadly storm: Sirens and TV broadcasts gave people as much as 30 minutes of warning; the University of Southern Mississippi was emptier than usual because of Mardi Gras; and most businesses were either closed or quiet because it was a Sunday.
Forecasters were able to closely track where the storm was headed and had confirmed reports from both people on the ground and from radar, making it easier to give warning, said weather service meteorologist Chad Entremont.
The sheer scope of the damage made it difficult to do a full assessment. Some 50 roads were closed at one point because of felled trees, downed power lines and debris. About 570 homes and mobile homes were damaged or destroyed, with another 100 apartments left uninhabitable. Several thousand remained without power, though the electricity was expected to be restored to most customers later Monday, Gov. Phil Bryant said.
Bryant said the twister carved a path of destruction roughly 75 miles long, though National Weather Service officials have not yet determined the tornado's exact path or how long it was on the ground. However, early indications show it was an EF3 tornado with wind speeds reaching 145 mph in parts of Hattiesburg, Entremont said.
This twister was part of a storm cell moving faster than usual, meaning it was likely to cover more ground. Many tornadoes travel just a few miles, Entremont said.
While more tornadoes were not in the forecast, heavy rain was expected into Tuesday. And that could make cleanup efforts even more difficult, said National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Bryant in Jackson, Miss.
On Monday, rain seemed to be adding to the misery as people tried to put tarps over leaky roofs and move belongings to dry ground. Chainsaws could be heard around Hattiesburg as people tried to cut up trees that fell onto homes. Crews were removing debris, but flooding and blocked roads hampered their work.
John Cline was among those trying to salvage his already damaged home as he worked to find a way to shut off a broken pipe filling his house with water. A massive pine tree about 4 feet around split his home nearly in two.
Cline had just gotten home from work Sunday when he turned on the news and realized the tornado was headed his way. He said he opened the back door and could hear the roar, so he ran to a closet in the hallway. He said it wasn't long before the tree came crashing through the ceiling and landed about 3 feet to his right. He struggled to keep the closet door closed because the wind kept pulling it open.
"I was fighting the tornado," he said.
On the USM campus, trees were snapped in half around the heavily damaged Alumni House, where part of the roof was ripped away. Windows in a nearby building were blown out, and heavy equipment worked to clear streets nearby in a heavy rain after the worst of the weather had passed.
The university was under a state of emergency and told people to stay away from campus until further notice.
Dot Peek had just arrived home about five minutes before the tornado hit and huddled in her bedroom with her son, adult grandson and other relatives. That bedroom was the only room not substantially damaged by falling trees and debris. The rest of the home was a wreck. Peek's truck was smashed; boards and debris floated in her swimming pool; a tree crushed her pontoon boat.
Peek heeded the warning of sirens, saying "they don't go off for nothing. But people who don't pay attention to them are stupid."
However, when asked if it was the alarms that saved her family, Peek shook her head and replied: "It's God. My grandson was praying as loud as he could."
McConnaughey reported from New Orleans.