Tripp Ward, compliance team leader for chemical products at the Kemper County energy facility, admits he once had the mentality that a natural disaster likely would never happen to him.
On Feb. 2, 2016, it happened to him.
Ward was in his Collinsville home, huddled under mattresses in a hallway with his two children, when an EF3 tornado damaged his house and 17 others in his neighborhood that day.
He recently shared his story at a company safety meeting, speaking on the life-saving importance of having a safety plan for your family.
“The main points I hope you get out of this are do we take safety at home as seriously as we do at work and are we utilizing all of the resources that the company makes available to us?” Ward told the group. “I learned on Feb. 2 that while I have a strategic approach to safety at work, the strategic approach to safety at home was not there.”
“My not-so typical day”
Ward’s wife, Natalie, was out-of-town in Jackson for a teacher’s conference, so, as he puts it, “I was Mr. Mom.”
The prior evening he learned that it was red, white and blue day at school, so a trip to Walmart was in order to make sure their children’s attire suited the colors of the day. He even purchased materials to spray-paint their hair blue.
He got up an extra 45 minutes early that morning to get the kids decked out in their red, white and blue – hair included – shooting a few pictures of 6-year-old Hamp and 9-year-old Emma before taking them to school.
Later in the day, Ward, ironically, was preparing for a meeting with Kemper County Emergency Management Coordinator Ben Dudley.
“One of the best things that could have happened was being with him,” Ward said. “I’ve never been through a tornado but in the back of my mind, I had the mentality that it’s not going to happen to me. He put the fear of God in me. He told me the tornado was heading to Collinsville about two and a half hours before it hit.”
With the weather situation growing worse, Dudley cancelled their meeting.
About the same time, Ward got a call that school was being cancelled. Since he was about an hour away, he arranged for a neighbor to pick up his children from school and he headed home.
“It only took 45 seconds”
Ward pulled into his driveway at 3:04 p.m., picked up his children at the neighbor’s house and was back home at 3:10 when a weather alert sounded on his phone as well as a TV alert that noted the tornado was near Chunky Duffee, still headed to Collinsville.
“I’m sitting there thinking, what am I going to do?” Ward said.
He remembered a safety meeting several years ago when he was a customer service representative in Meridian. A man from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency had stressed that two important things to have to survive a tornado were mattresses and helmets.
So Ward found a bicycle helmet and a baseball helmet, then moved two mattresses into the hallway. He quickly bathed the children to get the blue out of their hair then sent them to the hallway to play video games, hoping to keep them distracted.
He went to the front door and opened it.
“It was calm,” Ward said. “No rain. No wind. It was really gray. But the longer I stood there … I’ve always heard tornadoes sounded like a train. I heard a sound like rail cars going over the tracks.”
He slammed the door shut and joined his children in the hallway. He pulled a mattress over the top of them, laying there with his daughter under his left arm and his son under his right arm.
It was now 3:25 p.m.
Suddenly, glass began to break and the hallway door flew open. What Ward thought was windows breaking turned out to be pictures falling from the walls and breaking.
“My daughter was screaming, ‘Is that a tornado, is that a tornado?’” he said. “My son, by the way, was still playing video games.
“It took about 45 seconds, probably the quickest thing I’ve ever been through. When it quit and the house stopped rattling and shaking, I could hear people screaming.”
There were no fatalities, but extensive damage as the tornado skipped through the area.
“It was bouncing,” Ward said. “It had a very defined path. We just happened to be in the path of it touching down. My neighbor to the left had minimal damage and the neighbors across from me lost half of their home.”
Now we have a plan
Things are returning to normal at the Wards’ home. Repairs have been made to the house. While the Community Connection chapters from Kemper and Meridian provided physical support, the company’s Employee Assistance Program provided emotional support.
And now the Wards have an emergency plan.
“I don’t know if you have an emergency plan at home,” he said. “I didn’t and I would dare to say that a majority of you don’t.
“We now have an emergency plan. I admit it was odd sitting down with my family to talk about safety. Our company gives us everything we need to prepare. It’s up to us to put those things to use.”
Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company (NYSE: SO), produces safe, reliable and environmentally responsible energy for more than 186,000 customers in 23 southeast Mississippi counties. Mississippi Power earned the 2015 ReliabilityOneTM Award for outstanding midsize utility for excellence in storm restoration and recovery efforts as well as being a leader in reliability, customer service and safety. Visit our websites at www.mississippipower.com and www.mississippipowernews.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and YouTube.