Sometimes, the winds of fate will put a person in the most unusual, uncomfortable, unforgettable circumstances.
That is precisely where University of Alabama sophomore Annelise Moreau found herself as she came face-to-face with a monstrous tornado that raked the Hattiesburg area, including The University of Southern Mississippi campus, on Feb. 10.
“I was horrified because I had a front row seat into the center of a tornado. I was sure I was going to die,” said Moreau, 20, who was driving through Hattiesburg as the weather worsened that Sunday evening. “Most people don’t usually get to see the guts of a tornado and go on to describe it.”
The F-4 twister destroyed or damaged nearly 2,000 homes along a trek that took it through seven South Mississippi counties – Marion, Lamar, Forrest, Perry, Jones, Greene and Wayne. Several people suffered minor-to-moderate injuries, but the storm claimed no lives.
Most Southern Miss students were away for a Mardi Gras holiday when the tornado tore through the front part of campus. Six buildings suffered extensive damage, including the venerable Ogletree House which contained the Alumni Association offices. Approximately 75 trees were lost, including four legacy oak trees estimated to be nearly 90 years old.
Moreau rode out the tornado in her Toyota Camry less than 100 feet from the decimated Ogletree House. Mere minutes after the storm passed, Southern Miss Police Officer Jared Pierce found a dazed and panic-stricken Moreau screaming for assistance.
“In that moment after the storm, there was no one else but me and her,” said Pierce, a member of the Southern Miss UPD since 2009. “I just knew I had to get her to safety and away from any more danger at whatever cost. Her life was at stake.”
The lives of two complete strangers became forever intertwined that fateful day. Here’s how it happened:
Moreau had spent the weekend with her parents enjoying Mardi Gras festivities in her hometown of Mandeville, La. Traveling north on Interstate 59, en route to her apartment in Tuscaloosa, she encountered a digital sign that flashed a tornado warning. Unsure of what action might be the best to take, Moreau phoned her parents – Jim and Julie Moreau -- for advice.
“My parents pulled up the weather map and told me to take the next exit and drive down Hardy Street to the Southern Miss campus and then find a big building to get into,” said Moreau, who was traveling with two companions – her cat, Sully, and hedgehog, Ponchy.
As she pulled onto Hardy Street, now heading east, Moreau began to notice the sky growing more ominous behind her. Even worse, electrical transformers began exploding intermittently. Still conversing with her parents, Moreau found an entrance to the Southern Miss campus that ultimately took her to Championship Lane – a service road that runs adjacent to the Ogletree House.
Moreau had no idea that she had turned and parked directly into the tornado’s path.
“I told my parents that I was about to be in a tornado; that it was headed right toward me,” she said. “Momma told me to get out of the car and get in a ditch, but there was no time and no ditch. Just then I watched the alumni building split, and I completely lost it. I watched it crack, then it seemed like the broken section started to slightly rise. Then the bricks tumbled down into a heap and the lighter debris lifted and then dissolved into the sky.”
What took less than 30 seconds felt like an eternity to Moreau, who sat helplessly as the ferocious wind and debris pounded her car. “I started screaming, ‘I love you’ over and over again to my parents hoping that if these were my last words, they would mean something,” she recalled.
Huge branches from a nearby oak tree slammed into the car and two windows shattered shortly thereafter. With rain, wind and debris now stinging her face Moreau began to seriously ponder her mortality.
“I remember thinking, if I’m going to die, do I want to keep my eyes open and watch it happen, or just close my eyes and let it happen? So I kept opening and closing my eyes as my mind was racing,” she said.
Jim Moreau could only listen helplessly as the tornado terrorized his daughter. He concedes that the possibility of never seeing her again crossed his mind.
“It’s horrible the thoughts that run through your head in a nanosecond of terror,” said Moreau, who has a general dentistry practice in Mandeville, La. “I say repeatedly that I have prayed for many people in many situations. This was the most desperate I have cried out to God for help, knowing there are times when He will let His nature do its worst.”
And suddenly, the fury ended. Pierce, who had watched the tornado’s progression from his UPD cruiser, raced to the front of campus where he discovered a frantic Moreau.
“She was quite shaken and visibly upset,” said Pierce. “She was on the phone with her parents and trying to explain to them where she was. She didn’t know what to do with her car, and I advised her that it wasn’t going to go anywhere anytime soon and that we needed to get her out of the weather.”
Pierce escorted Moreau to Wilbur Hall, one of the women’s dormitories on campus, and quickly briefed residents there on what the Alabama student had just endured. The outpouring of concern surprised and soothed Moreau.
“I have never been so loved by so many strangers in my life,” she said. “Even now, I don’t remember all of their names. But if I saw them again, I’d recognize them immediately and show even more of my gratitude. These girls were heaven-sent. But without Officer Pierce, being my first sign of hope and help, I would have just stayed in my wet and torn-up car.”
Pierce, the father of a 10-week old daughter, does not consider his actions that day to be heroic. “I thought about how I would want an officer to treat my baby girl if she were ever in that predicament,” said Pierce. “I didn’t do anything special. I was doing what I have been called to do and that is to serve people,” said Pierce.
Chief Bob Hopkins noted that Pierce’s decisive action “exemplifies the commitment of the University Police Department and Southern Miss in providing the best service possible to the campus community and its visitors.”
“I am extremely proud of Officer Pierce’s vigilance during that time of crisis and his commitment to Annelise and her need for assistance,” said Hopkins.
Moreau had visited the Southern Miss campus briefly once before as a high school student trying to decide between attending college in Hattiesburg or Tuscaloosa. A die-hard Alabama fan, she acknowledges and appreciates the unique bond that ties her to Southern Miss.
“Officer Pierce definitely holds a special place in my heart now,” she said. “There is no way to talk about the horror I felt and then contrast that with how it felt to feel safe again. He was a blessing. They all were. Literally, they were answered prayers.”