By Billy Watkins
He knew the tornado was close. Sirens were screaming. The Tupelo TV weatherman was showing radar of the Friday evening storm approaching from the west.
So just before 11 p.m., Amory High School football coach Brooks Dampeer, his wife Emily and their two children (ages 9 and 7) went into the bathroom. They put on baseball helmets, climbed into the tub and covered themselves with a mattress.
Dampeer was watching the TV reports on his phone. And then Matt Laubhan, chief meteorologist for station WTVA — and an ordained minister — said this: “Amory, we need to be in our tornado safe place …Aw man, the north side of Amory, this thing is coming in … Aw, man. (Laubhan leans over onto his desk, head bowed.) Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen.”
“That’s when we started hearing everything,” Dampeer said Sunday. “Glass breaking. The wind whipping through our attic. I thought it might just lift the house right up, so I grabbed the kids and held them as hard as I could.”
It was over in a few seconds, but the Dampeers remained in the tub. “I didn’t know if there was another storm behind it or not,” he said. “Finally, people started coming around and we climbed out.”
It wasn’t long before he realized that Amory had suffered major damage to homes and businesses from the EF-3 tornado and its 155 mile-per-hour winds.
Three hours earlier, Rolling Fork was shredded by an EF-4 tornado that stayed on the ground for an incredible 59 miles. Winds reached at least 177 miles per hour.
Twenty-two people died in this town of about 2,000. Dozens more were injured. Many of them were hospitalized in neighboring counties.
Buildings and homes were flattened. Eighteen-wheelers were tossed about like Leggos.
At least three other Mississippians were killed — one in Silver City, 30 miles northeast of Rolling Fork, and a father and his 1-year-old daughter in the small community of Wren, just west of Amory.
On a personal note: I covered my share of tornado destruction during my career at The Clarion Ledger. With a guilty heart, I’ve interviewed people while standing with them on piles of splinters and bricks that used to be their homes. You hear chainsaws and are filled with the smell of sawdust. It was usually sunny the day after the storms I covered, which only magnified how quickly life can change.
I’ll never forget a woman in Louisville. She had made the final payment on her home the day before it was destroyed. “But I’m alive,” she said. “A house can be built again.”
Rolling Fork will be building back for a long time. They also will be attending memorial services of family members, friends and neighbors in the coming days.
The late blues singer Muddy Waters was born near Rolling Fork and called it his hometown. He would have a lot of material to write about if he were still here.
Rolling Fork is also the birthplace of the late Willie Mae Ford Smith, a Christian evangelist and gospel singer who toured America during the 1930s and ’40s.
She sang with the legendary Mahalia Jackson at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl on Easter Sunday 1949. The New York Times named Jackson one of the most important gospel singers of the 20th Century.
Her signature song was “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” One of the lyrics of the classic hymn goes:
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
No doubt, Rolling Fork could use a good bathing of prayer in the coming weeks and months.
When I spoke with Dampeer, in his second year as football coach at Amory, he hesitated to say much. “We had some damage to our home,” he said, “but nothing compared to what so many others suffered. We had some roof damage, some damage to our fence and deck. Lots of debris. But a lot of people have nothing left.”
His quarterback, senior Jatarian Ware, took shelter at a friend’s house. When it was over, he discovered his home had been destroyed. Somehow, his family survived. Just a few houses down, two people died.
“He’s a great kid,” Dampeer said, “and I hate to see him go through this.”
I asked about damage to the sports complex at Amory High.
“Again, I feel selfish evening mentioning it,” he said.
I reminded him of how much residents of towns like Amory and Rolling Fork love their sports.
He paused. “Well, that’s true and I try not to always make it about sports but the community as well.”
He explained that the softball field “got hammered.” So, too, did the baseball field. Amory won the Class 3A state baseball championship a year ago.
“And they’ve got a shot to do it again this year,” Dampeer said. “But the reality is, they’re going to have to find a place to practice, and so is the softball team. A lot of things are going to have to be figured out.”
The football field took a hit. All the light poles are gone. So are the concession stand and the press box. The field house has major roof damage.
“We’re talking about 85 football players, 45 baseball players and 30 softball players. All of this is affecting them in addition to what damage they might have had at home.”
He mentioned the miracle of Friday night: No one in Amory was killed.
I reminded him of a Friday night last November when his team lost a heartbreaker 52-51 in overtime to Noxubee County in the Class 3A north state title game.
“Yeah, in that moment it hurt. Really hurt,” he said. “But something like this makes you realize what’s important in real life and what isn’t . Certainly, we hope our sports will help our community heal in some way going forward.
“The support we’ve received already from the first responders and volunteers has been amazing. We live in a community where people will put down what they’re doing to go and help somebody. And we need to do that more than ever now. We need each other.”