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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.


January 23, 2017

My childhood babysitter was a half-Choctaw half-African American woman named Ned. She worked at the church nursery and took me to the park every Friday. I loved Ned as much as I have loved anyone in my family. She was wise beyond her years and was the first example I ever had of exemplary work ethic. She taught me many things, but one of the things that always stuck with me was an old “Indian legend” she espoused that a tornado “Will never hit in an area where two rivers meet.”

That seemed like sound, Native American philosophy. I was probably 10-years old when she told me that, and a tornado had never hit my hometown of Hattiesburg, which, by the way, is located where the Leaf River and Bouie River meet, intersect, and flow southward as the Leaf.

For 40 years after I heard that legend, Ned was batting a thousand. I was eased into a false sense of tornado security knowing that a twister would never hit my town. Then I learned that “Indian legends” must have a expiration date. In 2013 an F4 tornado blew through town a half mile north of my house. This past weekend a F3 tornado blew through a mile south of my house.

There are many reasons I love Hattiesburg and the Pine Belt. My businesses are here, the winters are mild, and the proximity to New Orleans, the Coast and Panhandle beaches is great. I am a sixth generation citizen of this area, so my family has deep roots in this community. That carries a lot of weight with me.

I could probably live in a lot of other places, but I choose to live here. I really have never considered living anywhere else. I have known people who have moved to the mountains of North Carolina or to other places that might be more scenic or temperate, but what do you have then? A pretty view? Some nice weather? But what about relationships? I would sorely miss friends and family back home.

I enjoy visiting the mountainous areas of North Carolina for a few days. But everything I care about and love— friends and family— is here in Hattiesburg.

In the end, it’s always the people.

There are many things to love and appreciate about the people in this area, and of all of those things possibly the most impressive is how the people in my community come together in times of crisis.

I was seven years old when Hurricane Camille blew through town. I don’t remember much except getting to camp out in the backyard, cooking with Sterno stoves, and playing with dry ice.

The unrivaled character of the people of the Pine Belt first struck me when Hurricane Katrina proved to us that the taproot of the Southern Yellow pine can’t hold up to 110-mph winds. That hurricane devastated this region. Within hours after the storm passed, the people of this town mobilized and were out in the streets and yards working with chainsaws and flatbed trucks. We bounced back quickly, not because we sat around waiting for a government solution, we became a community of neighbors helping neighbors. It was truly a beautiful thing to see.

When the 2013 F4 tornado blew through the heart of our city it created a swath of destruction from Oak Grove to Petal. Luckily lives were spared, but many homes were lost and people’s lives were changed forever. Again, the people of Hattiesburg and the Pine Belt mobilized immediately. Within hours, volunteer and impromptu clean-up crews were at work doing the hard and messy work of post-disaster clean up. Neighbors brought this community back in what seemed like a record pace.

It should have been of no surprise to anyone that the kind, generous, selfless, and community-oriented people of Hattiesburg and the Pine Belt were out at daybreak helping their neighbors in the immediate hours after last weekend’s F3 tornado. We weren’t as lucky this time. Lives were lost.

This town makes me so proud in times like these. It’s almost an automatic response. No one has to be asked to help, they come by the hundreds— thousands even— to help aid in the process of putting people’s lives back together.

I have been fortunate in my life and have never been in a situation where I lost all of my possessions, family heirlooms, priceless photographs, down to all of my clothes and toiletries. People in Hattiesburg and Petal emerged from the rubble of their homes a few days ago with nothing. Nothing.

In 2013, those people were able to say, “At least we didn’t lose anyone.” That is not the case in 2017. Pray for those families. Pray.

So we can put the two-rivers legend to bed. What we will never lose sight of is the pride and compassion of the people who live in and around this area. Hattiesburg, Petal, and the surrounding areas have heart. There is no other way to describe it. It’s heart.

For those who want to help the citizens of Hattiesburg and Petal who have been affected, impacted, and had their lives changed forever by this recent tornado, there are two very effective options:

Extra Table is supplying area food pantries— Edwards Street Fellowship Center, Christian Services, Petal Children’s Task Force, and the Eagles Nest (a pantry set up for Southern Miss students in need, who have agreed to help feed displaced William Carey students), with healthy food. All of the food is shelf stable and 100% of the donations will go to local pantries taking care of people’s most basic need— food. Go to

The Greater Pine Belt Community Foundation has a disaster fund that was set up after the 2013 tornado. It takes care of family’s long-term financial needs to aid in recovery .

Mississippians come together to help their neighbors in times of crisis and need. It’s the way we’ve always been. It’s what we do. It’s heart. It’s love. It’s Mississippi.


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