Bin 612 — a popular pub a quarter-mile from the campus of Mississippi State University — weathered two storms this week: once when an EF-1 tornado whirled a mile and a half east of the restaurant late on Saturday, and an Internet firestorm in the days since.
The reason for the digital frenzy? Bin 612 — and nearly half a dozen nearby restaurants in Starkville’s Cotton District — shut their doors as soon as the tornado warning was issued. Those already inside were asked to leave. And it didn’t go over well.
Video posted to social media Saturday night showed a cacophony of dumbstruck students as chaos ensued following the evacuation notice. “Get … out!” a voice can be heard shouting — later revealed to be a third-party security guard. The original poster removed the video hours later.
The backlash on social media was swift. Some faulted Bin 612’s decision to shut down, especially when it had a basement where people could shelter. Others felt the onus was on patrons, citing the importance of having individual severe weather plans.
A conversation with Bin 612 owner and chef Ty Thames offers some insight as to what went on.
“The basements can only hold about 40 to 60 people at most,” Thames said by phone. “Ordinarily, we have about 40 or 50 people in a given night. But because it was Super Bulldog Weekend, we were pushing 250 or 300.”
Fifteen people were relocated to the cellar, but it was “impossible to pick and choose more.” Thames cited the basement — primarily used for storage — as “very dangerous” because it was “primarily used only for storage.”
“We use it for alcohol and nonperishable goods,” Thames said. “You need to use a ladderlike thing to get into it. Last week, we had an insurance claim when a beer delivery guy slipped on his way down.”
Recent university graduate Dillon Richmond and friends headed to Bin 612 for drinks around 8 p.m. “Around 9 it started to rain,” he wrote in an email, “so everyone came inside to stay dry.”
Thames and his team said they notified patrons as early as 9:45 p.m. that the restaurant would be closing. Richmond recalled that things escalated in a hurry. “While we were sitting in the backroom around 10 p.m. A security guard walked up to us and said we needed to close our tabs and leave. He never gave us a reason.”
At 9:56 p.m., the National Weather Service in Jackson, Miss., issued a tornado warning for Oktibbeha County, which included the immediate Mississippi State campus. Less than a minute later — at 9:57 p.m. — it updated the warning, saying a “confirmed tornado … was located 12 miles southwest of Starkville.” Barely three minutes after, the Weather Service blasted out a dire statement: “a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado was located … 9 miles southwest of Starkville, moving northeast at 40 mph.” The Weather Service said the tornado would arrive in less than 10 minutes.
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
“People were too intoxicated to understand they were in danger there,” Thames explained. “It’s basically wall-to-wall glass on the front and the back of the building. The only non-glass walls we have are the interior room-to-room walls. And those are lined with glass racks to hold glasses, over 300 liquor bottles, and tons of serving glasses.”
The nearly half-mile-wide EF-2 tornado was about six miles away when the evacuation process started, which at most would correspond to a 10- to 12-minute lead time if the storm was moving at 40 mph. Fortunately, this funnel lifted — though an EF-1 would touch down a few minutes later and farther to the east.
The storm slowed down slightly before dropping an EF-1 tornado near Poor House Road on the MSU campus at 10:18 p.m.
Thames said the security guards — contracted from Average Joe’s Security — had tried to direct patrons across Maxwell Street, to a large underground parking garage. The security company does not have an online listing.
“The security guard was yelling and swearing,” telling people to leave, Richmond recalled. “A few moments later, the side doors swing open (from security pushing people out). I saw a lot of people trapped in the middle of the tussle.”
Police were called to the scene as “approximately one hundred people were trying to fight security,” the Starkville Police Department posted on Facebook.
“It was a tense situation for all,” Richmond said. “I’m not upset about the situation — I just wish they would have handled it differently.”
Thames said he’s looking to hire different security staff for the future. “If nothing else, there will be a change in who we allow the security company to staff here. I don’t want my customers seeing those guards again.”
In the days since, social media users have been split over where responsibility lies for customer safety: on the business or on the individual.
“Maybe choosing a business that is 75 percent windows as the place you want to shelter from a tornado that you knew was coming 14 hours ahead of time wasn’t the best idea?” wrote one Facebook user.
“Everybody knew for a week it was going to get rough that night!” another commented. “ ‘Hey let’s go out to the bars during tornado weather!’ Smart.”
Saturday night’s kerfuffle underscores the importance of knowing what to do before severe weather strikes. “I think having a severe weather plan falls on everybody,” Thames said. “A business has to have a clear plan. Communication is the key for the future.”
Thames plans to review severe weather procedures at his restaurants, and he has contacted the National Weather Service and several experts to help strengthen his plan.
“After that, I do think some responsibility falls on patrons. Everybody was at minimum 21. I consider them to be adults,” Thames said. “Everyone was well aware of mighty bad weather for days and the potential for tornadoes. You learn about tornadoes in grade school down here. Knowing what to do is severe weather 101.”