By Staff Sgt. Scott TynesAugust 7, 2019
COLUMBIA, Miss. - Hurricane Barry was moving inland on July 14, 2019, as Soldiers and civilians gathered to celebrate the reopening of the Columbia Army National Guard Readiness Center, which had been destroyed nearly five years earlier by a tornado and 14 years ago by Hurricane Katrina.
The irony was not lost on those in attendance and several speakers remarked about how timely the circumstances were.
"This was built to withstand high winds and to be a shelter we can use in case of state emergencies," said Lt. Col. Paul Lyon, commander of the 150th Brigade Engineer Battalion (BEB). Lyon transferred command of the unit to Lt. Col. James Barry the next day.
The weather had been worsening steadily during the morning on Dec. 23, 2014. As he prepared to leave for the holiday, Sgt. 1st Class Donald Harrod, the readiness non-commissioned officer for Company A, 150th BEB, had his plans precipitously changed as a tornado ripped through Columbia.
"It pulled half the roof off the drill hall," he said. "I dodged into the men's room and grabbed onto the pipes. It lifted the roof and set it back down. It happened so fast. I'm glad it didn't last any longer than it did or I would have had time to think about it - like in a hurricane. It was very violent."
Storm protection was worked into the design for the new $11.6 million, 43,400 square foot readiness center. It consists of two stories that are accessible on each level because the lower floor is partially buried in the natural terrain on the eastern side and exposed on the remaining three sides. A rise on the eastern side, complete with parking, offers easy access to the building's second floor and a landing that overlooks the assembly hall in the center of the structure on the first floor.
When Harrod emerged from his impromptu shelter in 2014, he was faced with a nightmarish sight. The armory was in shambles and ceiling tiles floated in the hallways.
"It was like I was in a different place and time," he said. "The hallway and drill hall were knee-deep in water and there were no lights. Then the generator did what it was supposed to do and came on. I was afraid I was going to get electrocuted."
Today, First Sgt. Harrod is the operations NCO at the battalion headquarters in Lucedale. He visited the new armory in June while final touches were still being made.
"It's crazy," he said. "It's like walking into the front office of a major corporation. It's going to be a magnet for a long time for VIP visits."
Mayor Justin Mckenzie agreed. He said it was the finest armory he had ever seen and he was proud it was located in Columbia.
"All of the cities around are going to be envious about this ... and I'm ok with that," Mckenzie said to chuckles from the audience.
Maj. Gen. Janson D. Boyles, the adjutant general of Mississippi, said he was proud to continue the tradition of Columbia hosting a readiness center.
"There is a great legacy here in Columbia with this armory," he said. "This has always been an engineering unit. It's been both construction engineering and combat engineering. Today, it's a combat engineering unit and we're very proud of the legacy we have here in Columbia.
"This is what connects us to you, the community," he continued. "This is what connects us to the families and the businesses and the churches and the neighborhoods that we represent when we put on this uniform to go overseas."
The Reopening was the first time Company A assembled as a unit in Columbia since the tornado. Following the tornado, Company A moved to Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center to await the rebuilding of their armory. Shortly thereafter, they deployed to Kuwait with the 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team in support of Operation Spartan Shield and returned home this past March.