By Alyssa Schnugg
Before making the drive to Amory Saturday afternoon, part-time WTVA anchor/producer and Ole Miss journalism graduate student AC Barker threw her hair up with a hair clip and donned her WTVA jacket.
While headed to Amory, Barker noted that everything looked pretty “normal.”
“The sun was shining, the trees were blooming, everything was green,” Barker told Hotty Toddy News Sunday. “Then I saw like, one tree down or one building that was a little messed up.”
When Barker reached the Tennesse-Tombigbee Bridge crossing into Amory, everything changed.
“I looked up and my jaw just dropped and my heart felt like it stopped,” she said. “It looked like a war zone.”
Barker is a second-year grad student at the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism and New Media. She anchors for WTVA on Saturday and Sunday mornings. She wanted to go see the damage caused by Friday’s tornado first-hand and write about it for work and for Newswatch at Ole Miss.
She admits that while she reports about bad things happening as a news anchor, she has never covered an event like the disaster that lay in front of her as she drove into Amory.
“Every weekend when I’m putting my show together, there’s always a shooting or something bad going on and I started to feel like I was getting numb to it all,” she said. “Going to Amory Saturday reminded me I’m still human. I do still feel things.”
Barker said she was not prepared for exactly how much she would be feeling while covering the destruction.
“I just looked around and I just started to cry because I could not believe what I saw,” she said. “It didn’t even look like a town. Like there weren’t buildings anymore. Everything that I saw was just piles of debris. “There was one strip of houses that seemed almost untouched, but other than that, the entire city was in shreds.”
An EF3 tornado ripped through the town Friday night, which was part of a strong storm system that wreaked havoc on several Mississippi towns and also in Alabama. Twenty-six people were killed during the storms — 23 in Mississippi and three in Alabama.
As Barker started to speak with the residents of Amory, she was glad she didn’t look like a television reporter that day.
“Some of the people said they were glad to see a reporter who looked like one of them,” she said. “If I had some in a dress with my hair and makeup all done, some said they wouldn’t have talked to me.”
While her original intention was to report what happened, she soon found herself wanting to help the people of Amory.
“I asked them for gloves or if they needed me to get them anything,” she said. “I just wanted to help them. But they said they were just glad to have the press there so that we could tell others what happened and share their stories. That surprised me, actually.”
She brought the wrong memory card for her camera so Barker had to record and take photos with her phone, which she said also turned out to be a smart choice.
“Just using my phone, and not walking around with a big camera, made people feel more comfortable in talking to me,” she said. “It was more about me walking around and talking to people and listening to their stories without them feeling like I was just some news person trying to get information from them. It felt completely different.”
When Barker crossed over into Amory and started to see the massive destruction, she admits she started to question her career choice. She realized this wouldn’t be the first time to cover something so awful and for a brief moment, she wondered if she would be able to continue being a journalist.
“Once I started talking to people and just exploring everything that happened, even though it was so devastating and heartbreaking, it made me love my job even more and realize why I chose this career in the first place,” she said. “I want to keep telling people’s stories. The more rewarding part for me was just getting people to open up to me and getting to tell their stories. It made me grow as a reporter, and as a person.”