Letter Re: Lessons from the Yazoo City Tornado

Dear Editor:
I have been reading your blog for a while but until Saturday, I never saw how a disaster could unhinge some people so quickly and what lack of preparedness can do to some people.

I went to deliver a chainsaw, some gas and water to a relative in Yazoo City and what is usually a 45 minute drive took over 2 hours. Land lines and cell towers were down, and if you had a phone with a certain carrier, the service was very spotty. The traffic was bad and the roads into the town were blocked and we were turned away twice by a motley group of authorities but mostly State police. One local deputy was sympathetic and told us a way to get in the town that was 35 miles out of our way and we eventually got close to the north side of town and we had to drive over live power lines and swerve around transformers. We got to the entrance of town and there were two State troopers blocking the exit but we told them we were delivering some supplies and they let us through. Eventually, we reached the home and there were trees and power lines everywhere. No power, no gas lines, homes and cars crushed, etc. One generator was being shared by neighbors and gas was being siphoned out of boats and cars to power it. There was one electric chainsaw that was plugged into the generator.

Things to note were that the authorities were very stressed out and not experienced with this kind of devastation and there were many people who tried to get to loved ones or family that couldn’t get past the road blocks. Some people just left their cars on the sides of the road and were allowed to walk into town. One lady drove around the roadblock and was chased by a cop car. There were people panicking and the Red Cross got there and all they were doing was handing out water bottles. The power company was only responsible for getting the trees off the power lines. You could see people just staring at their crushed homes and houses wondering what to do. There were cops on four wheeler ATVs just riding around and eventually the National Guard showed up but they were just driving around.

Some lessons learned:

No one is getting into town right after a disaster

Have a big chainsaw and make sure there are no trees in your yard

Have a four-wheeler and a 15 foot trailer to haul out pieces of debris from your home/yard

Have a siphon and a generator

Know how to turn off your gas in your home because live wires and natural gas don’t mix

Know beforehand that the authorities are not there to help you but to maintain order and the power company is not going to cut down that tree that is now in your dining room.

Brick homes fare better than stick ones

Anticipate that neighbors are going to freak out and run around like chickens with their heads cut off and try to do silly things like get in their cars and drive over debris in the road and get stuck and pop their tires.

Have gloves and chains in your truck and keep a full tank of gas at all times. Some people ran out of gas in the traffic.

Realize that tensions are going to be high and seeing weird things like one group of people having a barbecue and getting drunk and across the street one family was sitting on the lawn waiting for help is a recipe for a bad situation. I saw a kid in the road trying to flag us down and there were some guys leaning up against a house a bit out of sight. We just drove around him. I couldn’t believe that it was already getting strange and the tornado was only a few hours earlier.

So in a nutshell, that was my experience and one more thing, the tornado hit so fast that the siren didn’t give enough warning. And what was worse, people are conditioned to think the siren means thunderstorm or it could be a test or something else. So no one was prepared until they heard the freight train sound and with no one having basements in Mississippi, there isn’t really a safe place to be.

Sincerely, – James H.