Opinion: Thinking of Jacksonville

Heavy damage at the Reserve Apartments. A tornado struck Jacksonville and the JSU campus Monday doing extensive damage. (Photo by Trent Penny/ The Anniston Star)

I know what it’s like to see your hometown practically destroyed by an act of nature and my heart aches for the people of Alabama who spent Tuesday picking up the pieces of their lives.

I lived in Jacksonville a few years ago when I worked the summer at the Anniston Star - the area’s daily newspaper with one of the best staffs of community journalists in the business.

Me and two of my friends lived in Park Place apartments during this time, which was in the vicinity of where an EF3 tornado touched down on Monday. The storm made a direct hit on the Jacksonville State campus, tearing through buildings, flipping cars and causing significant damage to the university’s basketball complex.

The storm also left a path of devastation that saw many homes damaged.

I watched on social media Monday night as my former colleagues and mentors at the Anniston Star emerged from the storm and ventured out into the darkness to make sense of the destruction around them. They worked around the clock, many of them without power and some who had sustained damage to their own homes.

Places of worship are normally sought as both literal and figurative shelters during stormy times, but even West Point Baptist Church in Jacksonville was completely destroyed by the tornado.

While I have no doubt the community will not let this church body go without a home, it is important to know that many in a small town are hurting right now and it could have easily been Starkville in the path of that tornado.

In an instant, a storm showed nature can reduce an entire community to rubble. But unlike the storm that devastated Tuscaloosa, a breathtaking miracle could be seen in Jacksonville.

As of Tuesday night, no deaths from the storm had been reported. With so much destruction and uncertainty, it is no small victory and is something to be thankful for.

The images of shredded trees and homes continue to bring back memories of my own hometown of Tuscaloosa in 2011. It was years before Tuscaloosa was rebuilt, and in some ways, the scars of the 2011 tornado will always linger.

It will inevitably be the same for Jacksonville and Calhoun County. Years from now, the area will still bear the blemishes, but what could result from this tragedy could be a sense of community unlike any other. Tragedy has an uncanny ability to do that.

Mississippians know the horrors of severe weather as much as anybody, and in this time of crisis for this small Alabama college town, it is my hope the entire region will rally around the people to see them through.

I call on our Golden Triangle community, Mississippi State University, EMCC and our other institutions to offer whatever aid possible to our fellow collegians at JSU and the people Jacksonville. We are blessed to have such amazing institutions in our backyard, but like the Starkville Daily News, they could just as easily have been the victims of a destructive storm.

We at the Starkville Daily News plan to do our part to support our fellow community journalists and we hope the community will do the same for its Alabama counterparts.

Moving on from tragedy is rarely easy, but it often shows us just what we are made of.

The Anniston Star (located at 4305 McClellan Boulevard) published a list of ways you can help.

— Volunteers can sign up with the EMA at the Jacksonville Community Center on 501 Alexandria Road SW.

— Donations of supplies are being accepted at the Family Life Center of the First United Methodist Church at 308 Gayle Avenue SW.

— Monetary donations can be made to the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama in Anniston. The foundation has set up a fund and 100 percent of donations will go to disaster relief. To make a donation, visit https://cfnea.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?setc=1&funit_id=1073&event_d....

— The JSU Foundation, the charitable arm of the university, has set up a fundraiser for those displaced by the storms. To donate, visit https://www.gofundme.com/jsustrong.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the newspaper or its staff.