Mississippi Residents Remember ’01 Tornado

By STEVEN G. WATSON | November 29, 2011

It has been a decade since a deadly, pre-dawn F-4 tornado ripped a path through southern Madison County, Miss., killing two, but for those involved the memories are still fresh.

As one of the first officials on the scene following the Nov. 21, 2001, storm, Madison Public Works Director Denson Robinson, said people still say the tornado was a lesson learned.

“I think it certainly has made a difference,” Robinson said of people’s preparedness. “So many people were traumatized.”

The tornado destroyed 47 homes and damaged more than 100 others.

The tornado hit just before day break at 5:20 a.m. when most residents were sleeping.

Some described suddenly being awaken by a rattling and the massive sound of the tornado bearing down on them.

Parts of Fairfield were a slab, wiped clean. Automobiles were twisted and tossed like play things. The storm bored it way north through Gluckstadt before lifting near the Nissan plant.

At the time of the storm, there were harrowing stories of survival, how people heard the faint wail of a warning siren in Madison only to dive to safety into a utility room or under furniture in the nick of time.

That morning warning sirens sounded in Ridgeland, too, but there was just an eerie still.

Now survivors of that storm and those it missed say they pay close attention to weather online, own weather radios, some even receive alerts via text or smart phone apps.

Hardest hit was Fairfield off of Mississippi 463 where WLBT-TV meteorologist Barbie Bassett lived at the time and still does. She said the tornado forever changed the way she reports the weather.

“Before I would get excited about it, almost like a rush,” Bassett said of her job reporting bad and sometimes dangerous weather to viewers. “Now that I’ve been affected by one and I have children and I know people who have been affected, it’s different.

“I’ve been there and done that so it totally changed the way I cover it,” she said.

Bassett was actually out of town with her husband visiting her parents in the Delta for Thanksgiving, but woke to the call from friends and colleagues.

At the time, her husband William was a paramedic and executive with AMR, the county’s ambulance provider.

“We made a three hour trip in about an hour and 45 minutes,” she said.

“I remember when we turned the corner driving into Fairfield it was just a sense of awe. It was almost like a dream. Is this really my neighborhood? Is this really my neighbor’s houses? What about my house? It was just pure shock.”

The Bassett home was on the outside edge of the tornado’s path and received some structural damage, but not enough that it had to be torn down.

She remembers helping others who faired much worse, sifting through rubble and finding items strewn all over.

Several houses were completely destroyed in a part of the neighborhood some began calling “Ground Zero.”

Kisha Jones, a 25-year-old public relations executive, was visiting her parents in Fairfield subdivision when she was killed in the storm.

The storm’s other victim was a baby, delivered prematurely at a hospital after the mother was injured critically.

Robinson was one of the first EMS responders who made it to Fairfield just after the storm passed. He described the scene as eerie.

“When I stepped out of my truck it was pitch black dark and so quiet,” he said. “Then you hear someone say `help, over here,’ and you just go help them.”

Bassett said she sometimes talks to middle school students in Madison County who were toddlers when the storm came through. She said it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to tornados.

“It’s the one question they always bring up,” she said. “They say they had a tornado in their neighborhood and ask if there could be another one happen this year.

“I think it’s definitely brought a heightened sense of awareness to severe weather and the importance of having several different sources of weather information.”

Here are a few stories:

– Nina Bhatt was awakened by her 10-month-old son Ishan around 3:45 a.m. and spent the early morning hours trying to get him back to sleep. As she turned off a CD of music she had been using to help soothe the baby the tornado sirens began to wail.

She rushed to wake her husband and brother and the four off them huddled in their laundry room holding onto the door as it bucked and was almost torn from its hinges.

– David Dykes found his wedding ring in four feet of rubble in his neighbor’s yard.

– Madison Volunteer firefighter Henri Fuselier described going through a dining room window of a house and walking into the living room because he heard someone calling out. At that point he said he smelled gasoline and when “I shined my light up” he said he was looking at the underside of a car.

The Fairfield Homeowners Association set up a relief and information center at the neighborhood clubhouse where people could drop off found items and report missing ones.

People brought in everything from baby shoes to silverware to Bibles found strewn throughout the county and beyond.

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