On Sea Island Drive, it’s salvage time

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 26, 2010


Sea Island Drive is a mile-long lane of mostly modest weekend homes and retirement cabins on the rim of giant Eagle Lake. Under sunny skies Sunday, property owners were salvaging what they could.

“It’s 1,000 percent sentimental,” said Bruce Mitchell of Jackson, who was working alongside his two sons, Jonathan and Adam, near an uprooted tree on their lot. “I found a mounted deer head that belonged to my dad. He had killed it in 1959.”

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Jackson meteorologist Jared Allen said this morning that a single tornado had crossed the Mississippi River at Eagle Lake about 11:30 a.m. Saturday from Madison Parish, where it caused the first reported damage.

He said when the storm hit Eagle Lake, it had developed into an EF-3 based on the Enhanced Fujita scale, reflecting wind speeds between 130 and 150 mph.

Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said he counted 11 destroyed homes on Sea Island Drive. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said 69 homes and mobile homes, as well as a business in Warren County were damaged. No life-threatening injuries were reported.

The storm was over in minutes, but left broken tree limbs, piles of debris and fragments of houses and personal belongings in a range 2 miles wide in the Eagle Lake area.

“It looks like a war zone,” said Janice Strickland, whose parents, Johnnie Sr. and Catherine Nosser of Vicksburg, had built their family cabin in 1956. The late Johnnie Nosser was the founder of Vicksburg’s popular Johnnie’s Restaurant and Drive-In. Sunday, Mrs. Nosser looked at the debris from a vehicle.

“It’s much better today,” one of her granddaughters, Cathi Verhine, said on Sunday. “We can rebuild, and our memories can’t be taken from us.”

Pace said Sea Island Drive is closed to traffic indefinitely.

“We’re restricting that to property owners and immediate family of the owners to get the majority of their property cleared,” Pace said. “We’re not allowing any sightseers.”

Pace also said there have not been any incidents or trouble in the area. “I’m really proud of how the citizens reacted to the situation,” he said. “They respected the tragedy. The people of Eagle Lake have really pulled together.”

“We’re very fortunate,” said Bernita Ward of Tylertown, who along with her husband, Neal, and a few relatives, were clearing debris from the yard of their weekend lodge. “So many others lost so much more.”

Their neighbors across the street, the Gurleys, shared the same thought.

“I’m thankful my family is safe,” said Kenneth Gurley, who was one of two reported injured in the tornado. He received a gash to his leg, but did not go to the hospital. The second person injured was Gurley’s father-in-law, Eddie Grant, who received a cut to his arm and was treated by emergency medical personnel on scene. “We packed up what we can, but a lot of these things are a loss,” Gurley said.

Gurley said he has friends who came to help clean and clear through the rubble on the shattered site of what had been his home.

“I don’t even know him,” he said pointing to a man who was carrying a bag of items to a truck. “He’s a friend of a friend, and I’m glad he’s here. We have people from Vicksburg and New Orleans coming to help. Thank God for friends.”

Mitchell said he is optimistic, and is looking forward to rebuilding. “You can replace all the material things,” he added. “But you can’t replace lives.”

Gov. Haley Barbour had declared a state of emergency for counties, including Warren County, in the tornado’s path. It allows emergency responders to utilize state aid and resources.

MEMA spokesman Greg Flynn said late Sunday the Federal Emergency Management Agency will assess damage and that could lead to a presidential declaration and federal assistance.

Twin County Electric Power Association branch manager Tom Price said this morning that electricity has been restored to nearly 800 of their customers they serve in the Eagle Lake area.

“I would say about 40 or 50 customers are without this morning,” Price said. “Unless their house has been torn off or their meter base has been torn off, they should have power.”

He said all of Eagle Lake customers were without power for about six hours following the tornado.

In Madison Parish, La., Maj. Neal Horath of the Madison Parish Sheriff’s Department described activity similar to that at Eagle Lake.

“We’re cleaning up as well as we can,” he said. “We have lots of family and friends and local logging companies coming to help.”

He said much of the damage was centered on Willow Bayou subdivision and confirmed 20 empty and stationary railroad cars had been knocked over by the storm.

He said Complex Chemical, a company that makes automotive fluids, near the Mississippi River Levee north of Tallulah on Port Road, is still closed, while the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and officials from Homeland Security were assessing the damage.

A liquid nitrogen leak was reported, but Horath said that has been contained and repairs were under way.

On Saturday, 12 people were reported to be hospitalized and 50 more treated for injuries, and Horath said this morning all had been released.

The single, continuous tornado traveled about 140 miles through Mississippi ending in south central Holmes County, where it had lost much of its structure.

He said the tornado reached its strongest point at an EF-4 rating when it hit Yazoo County. Winds at that point were as fast as 175 mph.