JACKSON, Tenn. – Nov. 12, 2002 – Early Sunday morning, Nov. 10, time stood still at Union University. That’s when, according to student eyewitness accounts and the National Weather Service, an F1 tornado formed above the campus, creating 110-mile-an-hour winds which blew dumpsters and picnic tables through the air, knocked down trees and power lines, and broke and shattered glass windows in cars and buildings. The time on the clock of the university’s Miller Tower read 12:05. It would stay that way for the next 18 hours.
The administration moved quickly. Arriving on the scene minutes after the storm hit, facilities management worked fast to assess initial damage of all buildings on campus while student services staff accounted for the whereabouts of all students who had been on campus. By 1 a.m., Union President David S. Dockery and his team of administrative leaders stood between the Hurt and Watters commons, assessing the situation and making decisions on temporary arrangements for student housing.
“Our first and primary concern was the students,” said Dockery. “We needed to make sure everyone was accounted for, and we were amazed and grateful that there were no injuries.”
He praised the resident directors (RD’s) of the complexes along with their student resident assistants (RAs) for moving quickly when the tornado warnings were announced. All-call intercom announcements had been made throughout the complexes telling students to move to the bottom apartment bathrooms, the most interior part of the dorms.
“Residence life staff were our first line of defense in this situation and did an excellent job of keeping everyone safe,” said Kimberly Thornbury, dean of students, who had arrived on the scene by 12:30 a.m. “There’s a partnership between the RD’s, keeping students informed, and students responding to what the RD’s instructed them to do, which I think had a big impact on why everyone stayed safe.”
Students were given two options for the night – they could either find a room on campus with a friend whose room had not been damaged or they could take a provided shuttle to nearby West Jackson Baptist Church, where arrangements had been made for students wishing to stay there for the night.
“Most students chose to stay with friends either on campus or off, but we did have a few who did not wish to stay on campus, and those students stayed in staff and faculty homes that night,” said Thornbury. “We wanted to make sure that students had several options.”
During the storm, groups of students huddled in bathrooms and bathtubs throughout the complexes, praying together as they waited for the storm to pass. RAs had an especially important task of protecting not only themselves but the other students.
“They put themselves at risk, and they know it, by being the last in line to get to cover,” said Pam Schock, resident director for Hurt Complex, which sustained quite a bit of damage when one entire wall of glass blew in from the high winds.
“I was going to check all of my girls’ rooms again when Pam called me back in and told me there wasn’t enough time,” said Carrie Thomas, a junior psychology major from Greensburg, Tenn., and an RA for Hurt. “I went back into the commons where everyone was huddled in the back room and just a few minutes later we heard a huge crash as the big window broke. Everything was everywhere.”
“There had been 30 to 40 people in the commons when it happened,” said James Layton, a junior pre-med major from Sparta, Tenn., and an RA for the McAfee Complex. “People were in both the guys’ and girls’ bathrooms. We didn’t open the bathroom door till it was all over. There was glass and paper everywhere and only one awning still in place.”
Students who reported broken windows or water in their rooms were relocated to temporary shelter for the night. Without power, water, phones and technology, a serious challenge loomed large for parents trying to contact their students and for Union staff trying to get word to parents that their students were ok. Cell phones became the primary form of communication, getting word to media outlets in Memphis, Jackson and Nashville that students were safe. Classes were cancelled for Monday and students who had been away from campus over the weekend were asked not to return until notified otherwise.
“I am amazed and so thankful for the incredible leadership provided by our residence life teams, our student service teams and our facilities management staff,” said Dockery. “They protected and guided our students while working through the night to get us past those first crisis hours. They are to be commended.”
Alaina Kraus contributed to this story.
Sara B. Horn,