On Tuesday, it will have been one year since an EF-3 tornado struck the city of Jacksonville and the campus of Jacksonville State University, leaving hundreds of trees decapitated, thousands of residents without power, houses with no mailboxes and mailboxes with no houses.
On campus, roofs were ripped off dorms, vehicles were toppled and landmark buildings were severely damaged, some beyond repair.
But, thankfully, no lives were lost, largely because most of the students had left campus to go on spring break.
The initial hours after the storm and over the year since March 19, 2018, has seen an outpouring of good will from around the state and beyond that brought volunteer cleanup efforts and much-needed fundraising.
The aftermath is, in many ways, a changed landscape for JSU. The iconic Merrill Hall, for instance, was rendered almost unrecognizable and continues to languish in limbo thanks to disputes over insurance valuations for replacing the building.
Around 50 of the campus’s structures were damaged -- 23 of them significantly, including Merrill Hall; Wallace Hall, home to the College of Nursing and Health Sciences; the International House; and many of the off-campus apartment complexes.
But in so many ways, JSU is more Cocky than ever. A perfect example is the softball team’s new and improved University Field, which saw its first live action last week after a year of repair.
"It seemed like the tornado knocked us down," senior infielder Amber Jones told Star Sports Editor Mark Edwards. "To have a facility like this and have it up and running before conference play starts is a blessing. I know everyone here is thankful. It's awesome, it really is."
A tornado warning late Thursday was followed by howling winds and darkened skies over JSU’s campus providing an eerie reminder of the conditions that brought a powerful twister almost exactly a year earlier. While everyone was thankful to avoid a repeat, officials aren’t necessarily opposed to nostalgia.
The city and the university have planned several days of commemorating the anniversary of the twister touching down and the recovery since.
Events began Saturday with Looking Back, Moving Forward, a free city event with a hot dog dinner and live band. TV meteorologist James Spann will visit the campus on Monday. Panel discussions will also be held on safety and the psychological effects of the storm.
As is obvious from the devastation seen in Lee County two weeks ago, there’s no such thing as a quick bounceback from a natural disaster. Even when there’s no loss of life, there’s still in some ways a lifetime of recovery.
As is naturally the case, the initial wave of volunteers that showed up to cut limbs and restore power and cook meals and direct traffic and donate money has subsided.
But, university and city officials, as well as students and residents have demonstrated resilience and strength in picking up the pieces over the past year. City government has been outstanding in addressing residents’ questions and concerns. A regular presence from the Jacksonville Police Department has been effective in warding off scavengers. JSU President John Beehler has embodied the perseverance of the faculty, staff and the student body.
JSU spokeswoman Buffy Lockette praised students’ resilience and understanding as the school continues to recover. “... we didn’t see anything on social media about students complaining,” she said. “They just rolled with the punches.”
Even so, there are still people waiting to return to their homes, and others whose roofs are still covered with blue tarp. Many are still trying to figure out what recovery looks like. That’s why it’s important for all of us in the surrounding community and beyond to continue supporting JSU and the city of Jacksonville. Keep sending donations. Continue offering prayers. Stay Cocky.