By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Russ Brown got the experience of a lifetime on April 28.
He’s a member of American Legion Post 49, and spends about every day at the boat ramp, where people pay to fish in Legion Lake.
“I saw a black cloud coming and saw lightning,” the Tupelo resident said. “I told my buddy, ‘I’m fixing to go behind the building.’ He said, ‘I want to see it,’ if you can believe that.”
Brown pulled his SUV behind the Legion building, and his friend soon parked next to him.
“To my right, I saw trees and the tops of them snapped off. The roof came off the building. I said, ‘Uh-oh,’ and ducked down,” he said. “In 5 seconds it was gone. Five long seconds.”
Not long after, Mike Pettigrew, vice commander of Post 49, got a phone call.
“Russ said, ‘The Legion’s gone,’ but I thought he was the boy who cried tornado,” he said.
Pettigrew drove to the intersection of the Natchez Trace and McCullough Boulevard, then hiked the rest of the way.
“Once I came up on the off-ramp, once I started seeing the destruction, I thought, Russ was right,” Pettigrew said.
The grounds around Legion Lake are covered in busted glass, broken bricks, splintered wood and twisted metal.
Pictures, plaques, paintings and other mementos were scattered by the winds, and most are never to be seen again.
The floor and basement survived, along with parts of walls, but the building is a total loss.
As Post Commander Tommy Carr Jr. said, “You can tell by the trees and how they fell that this building pretty much took a direct hit.”
After that long five seconds, Brown said he and his friend got out of their vehicles “laughing, giddy, you know, because we were alive.”
But the time for elation has passed for Legion members. Now is the time for planning and fundraising, while they also continue serving the community.
“Losing the building is probably going to be little more than a hiccup for us as far as our programs are concerned,” Carr said.
This past week, members put out more than 1,500 flags at veterans’ graves in anticipation of Memorial Day. On Friday and Saturday, members were at both Tupelo Walmarts handing out poppies and collecting donations that will help fund the Legion’s 49ers baseball team and Boy’s State, which will be May 25-31.
A commercial company will tear down what’s left of the Legion building, but members haven’t been idle.
Home Depot had awarded the Legion a grant to transform the basement into a fitness center. The company allowed that grant to be applied to tornado recovery, so it’s been used for chain saws and other tools for cleanup.
Slowly but surely, downed trees and debris are getting taken care of, and some of that twisted metal has been designated for recycling.
The building was insured, but not at a level that would make rebuilding a seamless process. Carr and Pettigrew are asking their 500 members to raise money over the next 12 months.
“It’s not what you can pay out of your personal checking account now,” Pettigrew said. “It’s what you can raise over the course of the year.”
Members will be encouraged to talk with their deep-pocketed friends in town, as well as across the country.
“Through my years of military service, I’ve got friends from California to New York,” Carr said. “I know some of them will want to help.”
Other Legion posts have sent donations, and the American Legion’s national office has cut a $5,000 check to help with the transition. Pettigrew said he also expects to apply for more grants.
“We don’t have a budget at this time,” he said. “That will be determined over what comes in.”
There was never any doubt about rebuilding, but Carr found something the day after the storm that reaffirmed his resolve.
“Sitting on top of a pillar that had fallen was a MIA/POW plaque and a Bible,” Carr said. “The Bible was soggy and wet, but it was open to II Corinthians Chapter 9. It was an omen for us to rebuild.”
The group has already met with an architect, and there are some definite ideas about what a future post will look like.
“The next one will have windows,” Pettigrew said, and shared a laugh with Carr about the old building’s relative lack of windows. “And we’ll reorient to the lake.”
A main goal will be to accommodate members who use walkers and wheelchairs.
“We need to make sure the bathrooms and entrances meet ADA requirements,” Pettigrew said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “That’s what’s driving our design.”
As with the old building, a spot will be reserved for prisoners of war and those missing in action.
And the flag that flew during the tornado will have its place of honor.
“We’ll preserve it in glass and display it at the new building,” Pettigrew said.
Between now and the eventual grand opening, the to-do list might seem impossible at times, but Pettigrew said patience will be a crucial part of the process.
“I think in the end we’ll get the donations and the help,” he said. “It’s going to be slow. We have to manage our expectations, but we’ll get there.”