Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, a worldwide pandemic and controversial presidential election thrown in for good measure. It sounds like the plot of a horror movie, but it was 2020 in George County. The year began filled with bright hopes for a prosperous future. The local unemployment rate was at record lows, phase one of a new trade deal with China was being finalized promising better days ahead for agriculture and Enviva was meeting with potential contractors for the new high density wood pellet plant to be built in George County. The Mississippi State University Extension Service had just issued a report on Mississippi agriculture and forestry. Agriculture is Mississippi’s number one industry, employing approximately 29% of the state’s workforce either directly or indirectly. Agriculture in Mississippi was reported as a 7.72-billion-dollar industry with approximately 34,700 farms in the state covering 10.4 million acres. according to the Mississippi Agriculture Commission website. Agriculture makes a significant contribution to all 82 counties. By far and away, the leading agricultural crop in the state was poultry, producing broilers, eggs and layers valued at $2.78 billion. Mississippi growers currently produce about 800 million chickens each year. The other top crops for Mississippi farmers were reported as soybeans at $1.06 billion, cotton at $624 million, corn at $351 million, cattle (cows and calves) at $305 million, catfish at $164 million, sweet potatoes at $118 million, rice at $117 million, hay at $106 million, horticulture at $104 million, hogs at $94 million, milk at $23 million, peanuts at $19 million, wheat at $12 million and grain sorghum at $1.3 million. While poultry is not a significant crop in George County, timber certainly is. About 63 percent of the state, or roughly 19,700,000 acres are used to grow timber. The pulp and saw lumber harvest had a value of about $1.25 billion in 2018. Much of George County is devoted to growing timber, a crop that hasn’t been very profitable in recent years. Timber prices had generally remained steady for several years with stumpage prices for timber at $9.50 per ton for pine pulpwood, $12.50 per ton for small pine saw timber, $20.50 for large pine saw timber, $13.50 for hardwood pulp, and $50 per ton for large hardwood saw timber. The importance of the new Enviva pellet mill was significant, opening a new market for George County timber. The local school board hired former high school principal Wade Whitney to be the new district superintendent. News broadcasts in January began to mention a novel new coronavirus in China that was making people sick. Supposedly it is common in bats and was transferred to humans by someone eating a bat in a Chinese wet market.
By early February, the national media drum beat on the new virus, named COVID-19, was ramping up. “We are watching it, of course,” said George Regional Health System CEO Greg Havard at the time. “We are working with the Mississippi Health Department, which in turn is working with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). We don’t have any concerns. So far, only about 20,000 cases have been reported and most of those are in China. The death rate for this disease is about two-percent.” At that time there had been 10 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S., with all of those occurring in people who have travelled to Wuhan, China, or have been in direct contact with someone who had. The first of those diagnosed in the U.S. had already been released from the hospital. Heavy February rains extending into the central regions of the state began causing flooding. On February 25 the Pascagoula River stood at 23 feet at Merrill, just one foot over flood stage.
By early March construction was underway for the new $140 million Enviva pellet plant. “We are very pleased with the progress we have made so far,” Maria Moreno, Communications and Public Affairs Director for Enviva said at the time. “The project is proceeding as scheduled, though rainfall has been much higher than normal for this year, it has had minimal impact to our schedule.” The normal ebb and flow of life each year includes births and deaths. The community was saddened by the unexpected of softball coach Steven Jordan. The Lady Rebels were playing Gulfport at Gulfport when Jordan collapsed near the end of the game. Suffering a massive stroke. he never recovered, succumbing the following day. COVID-19 was sweeping the nation by mid-March and the first cases were diagnosed in Mississippi. On March 16, the George County Board of Supervisors approved a proclamation of emergency. This action came only days after President Donald Trump declared the spreading virus a national emergency and Governor Tate Reeves had declared it a state emergency. Leading up to the unanimous vote, Emergency Management Coordinator Nancy Smith reported that there were 10 cases of COVID-19 identified in Mississippi. She said there were two in Copiah County, three in Forrest County, two in Hines County, one in Leflore County and two in Pearl River County. Because of the virus, George County Superintendent of Schools Wade Whitney announced all George County School facilities would be closed for two weeks, a period including at least this week and next week, which includes the normal spring break By the end of the month COVID-19 was dominating both national and local news. The Governor had issued executive orders limiting public gatherings and “non-essential businesses” were being closed. COVID-19 testing sites were opening up and access to public buildings was being limited. “We have closed all of our public restrooms,” said Mayor Darwin Nelson in explaining the City’s response to the pandemic. “All of our public buildings are on lockdown. We are doing drive-through only at City Hall. We are still offering all City services.” Nelson said he has been talking with businesspeople throughout the City and is pleased with their precautions. “Restaurants are offering drive-through service only and others are redoubling efforts to keep their facilities sanitary, such as frequently wiping down customer counters with disinfectant.” By the end of the month with lockdowns, quarantines and economic collapse, a ray of sunshine began shining through the storm clouds of the pandemic. Coming in all sizes and colors, they began popping up everywhere – on mailboxes, in store windows, hanging from trees, street signs and porch railings with kids of all ages on the hunt for them. Teddy bears. “We decided to participate because we think it's a neat idea,” said Joy Herndon, the owner/manager of Moments Funeral Home. “Most individuals and businesses have Teddy bears lying around somewhere, so it doesn't cost anything to simply put it out for display. The hunt was based on a children’s book written by Michael Rosen. In the story, written for preschoolers, a family leaves home – “We are going on a bear hunt and we are going to catch a big one.” On the journey they encounter a number of obstacles, including tall grass, a deep river, mud and a forest. With each, they determine “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. Oh, no, we have to go through it.” March ended with a tornado cutting through the county. It was not immediately clear if it was one or two tornadoes, or if it was one tornado that touched down, lifted and then touched down again. What is known is there was significant tree, roof and vehicle damage as far west as East Wilkerson Ferry Road stretching east to Wayne Lee Road near Agricola. District Three Supervisor Larry McDonald reported lots of tree damage, moderate roof damage and vehicle damage caused by flying limbs, county Communications Director Ken Flanagan said. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. The driver of a pickup truck and his daughter were taken to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries after their vehicle was picked up and dropped down on its top.
A George County High School senior was not so fortunate after another windstorm, this time in Greene County, in midApril. Brady Hicks, 18, was a passenger on a four-wheeler when it struck a tree that had blown down across McInnis Vernal Road just off of the four-lane Hwy. 63, according to Greene County Sheriff Stanley McLeod. Both Hicks, and the 18-year-old driver were ejected from the machine, landing about 23 yards from the point of impact. April saw yet more tornadoes cut their paths through the county. On April 23, six separate tornadoes touched down in Mississippi, three of those in George County. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado first touched down just east of Hwy. 63 on Inland Beach Road. It continued east across Beaver Dam Road in Lucedale and finally lifted at about Jones Road, leaving uprooted hardwoods, snapped off and pines and minor damage to homes in its 2.3 miles long and 200-yard-wide path. The worst damage occurred in the Rocky Creek area. Within five minutes of the Lucedale tornado, a second EF-1 twister touched down briefly just west of Passeau Road and continued four-tenths of a mile across Rocky Creek Road. Only 50 yards wide, it caused heavy damage to a mobile home at the intersection of Rocky Creek and David Wade roads, according to the NWS survey. This included removing the roof, resulting in the walls collapsing. Several pine trees were also snapped off. Just as that tornado lifted, yet a third one touched down just west of Hwy. 98 and traveled east, paralleling just north of Old Mobile Highway and Gordon Road. The tornado, also an EF-1, tracking across about 1.5 miles and an estimated 250 yards wide, finally lifted near Odom Road. This tornado resulted in significant tree damage, snapping a large number of pine trees. Numerous large oak trees were uprooted. The downed trees produced damage to homes in the area and other homes suffered shingle and roof damage. By the end of April George County had had 11 people infected with COVID-19. The State Health Department was reporting 6,094 cases and 299 deaths in Mississippi.
By mid-May it was beginning to look like the pandemic was waning. The numbers of new cases and declining. The Governor began relaxing his restrictions. Locally, restaurants began reopening. “People are loving it,” said Danny Druey, who assists his mother, Wanda, in managing the Aunt Jenny’s Country Buffet. “We removed more than half of our tables and have everything spaced at least six feet apart. We also have the buffet closed; we are serving the food. People seem appreciative of just being able to go out to eat.” Nearly three-and-ahalf months after the first COVID-19 case was identified in the U.S., Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), said recently that the spread of the infection has stabilized with the number of new cases now increasing only about four or five percent per day. Redfield added that if we are not at the peak of the infection, we are very close. In George County, 15 people had been identified with the disease. One death had been attributed to COVID-19.
Testing for COVID-19 infections was increasing at a breakneck pace. As of Monday, June 21, an estimated 27.6 million people in the U.S. had been tested for the coronavirus. Of those, 2.3 million Americans have been confirmed positive with the disease. The U.S. death toll had risen to 102,402, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The death rate for this disease was estimated to be four percent of those infected. Most of these deaths are elderly people with other health problems. About 40 percent of the deaths are occurring among people in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. An estimated 263,811 Mississippians had been tested, and 22,287 confirmed cases had been found. This included people currently suffering symptoms, people with antibodies showing they have had the disease in the past, and people with the virus but who are exhibiting no obvious symptoms. Nine hundred and seventy-eight people have died. An estimated 17,242 people have recovered from the infection, according to the Mississippi Department of Health. In George County, the George Regional Health Center had tested approximately 1,000 people, according to hospital CEO Greg Havard. Fifty-three people in the county had been identified positive with the disease and two deaths were attributed to the infection.
After years of controversy the state legislature voted with overwhelming margins to retire Mississippi’s State Flag. The flag is horizontal bars of red, white and blue with a representation of the Confederate Battle Flag set in the upper left corner. The Confederate Battle Flag has long been a point of contention. As the legislative session was entering its final hours, legislators voted first to suspend the rules allowing a bill to come forward that had not been on the docket. Second, they voted on a bill to retire the flag, adopted by the legislature in 1894. This clears the way for a commission to select a new flag design to be established. The 1894 flag is the state’s second official flag. It was adopted by the legislature and the governor with little press coverage and without direct voter approval. The George County School District announced it would reopen normally with some changes. The Mississippi Department of Education gave school districts across the state three options for beginning the new school year in the wake of the COVID-19, and the early shut-down of in-classroom learning last spring. Those three options were districts could meet the 180-day teaching requirement by implementing one or more of traditional classroom learning, virtual learning, or a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. The types of schedules may vary among schools in the same district to meet the different learning needs of students in elementary, middle and high school. On July 10, Jeffrey Fairley, of Benndale was shot to death in a Lucedale barber shop while waiting for a haircut. While investigators have not released any motive for the shooting, it appears Fairley may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, according to Chief Kellum Fairley. Jeffrey Fairley was a nephew to Lucedale Police Chief Kellum Fairley and a son of the late Louis Calvin (L.C.) Fairley, who was a Chief of Police in New Augusta until his death earlier this year. Dalen D. Wright, 21, and Jamar Jackson, 20, both of Lucedale were arrested and charged with capital murder.
With an abnormally active Atlantic hurricane season underway, Mississippi and George County in particular were escaping damage as hurricane after hurricane pounded Louisiana. Just when it looked like hurricanes Marco and Laura could blow through the area, they tracked to the west and smashed through Louisiana.
On September 10, Hurricane Sally formed near the Bahamas the various models suggested southeast Mississippi could be in the storm’s bullseye. It didn’t happen as the storm instead veeresd east, making landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama. Once again George County was spared. As September was drawing to a close, Governor Tate Reeves extended his mask mandate through the end of September, crediting the masks for the continued decline of new COVID-19 cases in the state. At that point Mississippi had confirmed 87,160 cases of COVID-19 with another 6,396 probable cases for a total of 93,556. Some 85,327 people had recovered from the disease. Two thousand, eight hundred and ten people had died with COVID-19 as a cause or contributing cause of death. George County had seen 751 cases since the pandemic began with 17 COVID-19 related deaths.
A second wave of COVID-19 infections began sweeping Mississippi, exceeding the peak number of weekly new infections seen in July. The seven-day average of new cases was topping 800 and climbing. To stem the increase of cases statewide, Governor Tate Reeves is once again mandating Mississippians wear mask while in a public setting until November 11. George County had seen 999 cases of the disease, as of Oct. 25. Nineteen people had died. Nearly one-third of Mississippi’s three million citizens, or 941,000 people have been tested for the virus. At least 101,385 of the 115,763 who have tested positive have recovered from the disease. Wednesday evening, October 28, with the 2020 hurricane season in its final days, George County residents sat down for their evening meal with only scant attention to the tropical storm in the Gulf. Zeta’s landfall was once again to be in Louisiana. Then, seeming out of nowhere the storm blew up. Conditions in the northern Gulf were such that the tropical storm/Cat I Hurricane Zeta became a very fast-moving Category II storm as it smashed its way across New Orleans with wind speeds of 110 mph. Like a runaway freight train it roared out of Louisiana and ripped its way across South Mississippi and into Alabama before its winds began to slow to tropical storm levels. George County was dead center in its path. Immediately following the storm, virtually every home and business in the county was without electrical power. For at least a couple of hours after the storm, every roadway and highway in the county was impassable due to downed power poles, trees and buildings, according to Ken Flanagan, the George County Communications Director. One hundred and twenty homes suffered major damage or were destroyed and up to 700 power poles were broken.
On November 3, a Presidential Election was held, showing a nation more divided than any time since the Civil War. As of press time on December 29, a winner has still not officially been declared as lawsuits swirl through the courts to charges of unprecedented voter fraud. It appears to be up to the Congress on Wednesday, January 6th. The daily average of new COVID-19 cases continued to climb. By the end of the month Mississippi had seen 143,879 confirmed cases of the disease with 3,676 COVID-related deaths. George County had experienced 1,216 cases of the virus with 23 deaths. December With Hurricane Zeta debris still piled along streets and highways, Governor Tate Reeves addressed a crowd of City and County officials at the Lucedale City Park. Reeves said that up until 2020, the highest Christmas on Main Street Drive By Tri-County Shrine Club Clown Mark Hopkins gave out animal shaped balloons at the starting line of the drivethrough number of federal disaster level storms the state had experienced in any one year was four. This year there have been 11. He said his office has requested FEMA declare the damage caused by Hurricane Zeta as a federal disaster. Reeves added his administration has a good working relationship with the Trump administration and he expects the disaster declaration will be made soon. With unprecedented speed, pharmaceutical companies have managed to produce new vaccines for COVID-19. New vaccines to ward off killer viruses normally take years to develop as pharmaceutical companies test and re-test products to meet the highest safety thresholds. For some viruses, such as the HIV, a vaccine is never found. Thanks to Operation Warp Speed, not one, but three vaccines and numerous therapeutics to treat COVID-19 have been brought to the public in just months. Operation Warp Speed has been an unprecedented partnership between about a dozen government agencies and major pharmaceutical companies from around the world with a goal of delivering 300 million doses of the vaccine by January 2021. By mid-
George County received its first 200 doses of Covid-19 vaccine. On December 29, George Regional Hospital CEO Greg Havard reported 300 health care workers and long-term care residents had been vaccinated against the disease.