It was the only preparation that campus officials had made for what Whitaker called one of the “worst storms Berry had ever suffered through” that morning when violent winds blew through Floyd County.
In a span of 90 seconds, Whitaker said the campus lost more than 1,000 trees and saw two of their historic cabins damaged or destroyed. More than $1 million in damage was done before it was all over, yet there wasn’t a single injury.
“We were very fortunate that day, because first of all the time it hit was during a time when students were in class, at breakfast and perhaps a few were still in bed,” Whitaker said. “So there were not a lot of students out and about. It was preceded by rain, and that rain probably drove a lot of students inside and out of harm’s way. So the timing was good.”
Many of the trees lost during the storms were either Monarch Oaks or a hardwood of some variety. The biggest symbolic loss that day was the famed Graduation Oak that stood on the lawn where Berry conducts its spring graduation exercises. With only two weeks remaining in the semester at the time, the school was able to clear out the remains of that precious oak.
“That appeared to be an impossibility,” Whitaker said. “It was a total mess. Miraculously that area was cleaned up, and we were able to have graduation. The holes were filled, sod was placed where the trees had been, and if one hadn’t known how shaded it was before, they would never have known.”
Whitaker also said students on campus were active in helping out with clearing out the wood and debris strewn around Berry after the storm passed through, even getting to work as soon as the weather had cleared.
“It was moments after that storm when students began to emerge and see what had happened,” he said. “But they didn’t just come and gawk. They started picking up trees and piling them up. No one asked them to do it; no one prompted them. They did it simply because they’re Berry students. They have the value of hard work, they wanted to see the place cleaned up, and they weren’t going to waste any time and carried on and got the job done.”
Whitaker said the college sold as much of the wood as they could from the fallen trees to vendors who used it to create hardwood lumber and other wood products.
“Some of the trees we could sell to purchasers, and others we couldn’t. Some of it would have gone for pulp, some of it would still have been good for lumber,” he said. “Berry has a wide variety of lumber on our property, and we sell to a wide variety of vendors, so we were able to recoup some of those losses. But at the end of the day we would have been better off it we’d not lost so many of those trees and had to sell that lumber when we did.”
The other two big losses at Berry that day were found around the historic cabins. Dorothy Cottage, which was built in 1912 and had up until the spring semester been used as overflow housing for students, was a complete loss.
“Had students been in there we could have very well been looking at a loss of life,” he said.
Julia Cottage, another log cabin-style house built in 1914 that has been used previously as student housing, was also damaged. Whitaker said it was “sliced like a stick of butter by two massive pine trees.” Julia is in the process of being rebuilt still a year on, and the college plans to use the rebuilt structure for student housing again once work is complete.
There are still signs all over of the damage inflicted in the 90 seconds the storm passed through. Some of the older, taller trees on campus are lopsided, with branches missing here and there throughout the canopy. Trees that were cut and left in the woods that border the Viking Trail — which was closed for weeks while work to clear the wood took place — are still visible, their root balls sticking straight up, acting as tombstones to the lost giants of Berry Forest.
But all around the campus there are also signs of rebirth, which Whitaker said was one of the biggest advantages of the storm that cost the college so much.
“We’re going to be able to do what hasn’t been done here since the days of Martha Berry. We’re going to be able to re-imagine parts of this campus because we’ve been given a blank slate on which to draw ourselves,” he said.
The storms also gave Whitaker and Berry faculty and students something else: a renewed love for their campus.
“I think when something like this hits, you immediately think ‘oh how lovely it was before,’” he said. “I think all of us involved gained a new appreciation for really how spectacular a place we have here.
“When you can lose 1,100 trees and look as beautiful and as tree-covered and as verdant as we do, it’s a pretty amazing place.”