By Marilyn Tinnin
William Carey University Rebuilds After Devastating Tornado
When an EF3 tornado swept through the campus of William Carey University in the wee hours of Saturday morning, January 21, 2017, it left the campus in shambles. Dr. Jim Futral, Executive Director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention was quoted in the Baptist Press as saying, “The school is not going to be able to open for weeks, or months, or maybe a year.” It was that bad.
Grace and mercy were everywhere evident from the minute the wind subsided. It was almost impossible to imagine that there was no loss of life. A statue of Jesus with arms outstretched sat on its pedestal unscathed amid piles of debris, concrete, and twisted steel. Bass Chapel was severely damaged, but the Bible on the pulpit lay undisturbed, the pages opened to Psalm 46 that begins, “God is our refuge and fortress, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth give way and the mountains crumble into the sea.” Coincidence? We think not.
Mia Overton, Media Relations and Marketing Coordinator, remembers walking through the rubble a few hours later, stepping over shards of broken glass, dodging fallen light poles and tree limbs, viewing the overturned cars, and wondering, “How are we ever going to recover from this?”
The subsequent rebuild has been a beautiful story of what happens when God’s people mobilize and use their individual gifts in ways that honor Him. And just as amazing is the pace with which it has all come together.
Dr. Tommy King, president of the school, had been through a rebuild on the William Carey Gulf Coast facility in 2005. His experience with the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not been the best. The rebuild there took years because of guidelines that were rich in paperwork and delays waiting while government wheels turned at a snail’s pace. Surveying the incredible progress visible everywhere on the Hattiesburg campus, he says, “If we had accepted FEMA money, we would still be filling out applications.”
There was no question in his mind that the campus could recover more quickly if there was no federal “help” requested.
By Monday morning following the Saturday tornado, countless generous and creative friends, faculty and staff had found ways to carry on classes, house students, and keep the business of the university rolling. The University of Southern Mississippi generously offered space for the nursing school, several medical school classes, and student housing. There were some courses that could go online. Other classes shuffled between buildings that were stable enough to use.
Six buildings were completely destroyed, and all 30 buildings on campus suffered varying degrees of damage. The disaster’s total price tag is somewhere around $100 million. Because of the age of some of the razed structures, there were some modern improvements that were long overdue. Insurance will pay for all but about $4 million. The new construction, however, will be state of the art, and the campus will be even prettier than it was before.
Dr. King has already raised most of that gap money. He has been astounded by the donations that have come from alumni and also from friends who had very little connection to William Carey. About a dozen Vacation Bible Schools elected to give their weeks’ offerings to the cause this past summer. One little kindergartener from Florida sent her week’s allowance of $6 to Dr. King telling him her kindergarten teacher was a William Carey graduate.
Although the expectation for the spring trimester was that enrollment would be down because of the temporary inconveniences, there was a 2% increase! The fall enrollment increased once more! The university is home to 4,694 students at the moment.
As William Carey celebrates its 125th year, the future is brighter than ever.