By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Local and state emergency management workers, volunteers and residents worked Tuesday to assess damage and begin cleanup from a tornado a day earlier with winds up to 150 mph.
Debris in Tupelo and Lee County roadways, houses and other areas produced by Monday’s EF-3 tornado caused millions of dollars in property damage, dozens of injuries and is linked to the death of Cassandra Blansett, 39, of Pontotoc, while she was driving on Palmetto Road.
Gov. Phil Bryant and other state and local officials in the area Tuesday saw deep destruction in the Tupelo neighborhoods including Joyner, Park Hill, Sharon Hills and in Lee County’s Auburn community. Church volunteers and others looking after their neighbors and fellow residents began helping clear trees, trash and other items from much of the area.
The governor viewed destruction from an aircraft, as emergency management teams assessed damaged houses and businesses on the ground.
Bryant said the storm crossed parts of Lee, Pontotoc and Itawamba counties.
The tornado that hit Tupelo left a 24-mile-long swath from 7 miles south-southwest of Tupelo to the town of Ozark in Itawamba County, said Marlene Mickelson, a meteorologist in the service’s Memphis, Tenn., office.
Several hundred homes and businesses were damaged in Tupelo and Lee County, officials said. About 30 homes in Itawamba County were hard hit.
Tupelo, Lee County and Itawamba County were among the places in Mississippi where a dozen tornadoes zipped through Monday, snapping mature trees, shaking and destroying houses from their foundations and causing dozens of injuries. Altogether, 40 counties in the state received damage from the tornadoes – Tupelo, Richland and Louisville bearing the worst impact.
“It is amazing to see that amount of residential damage, the number of large trees that have been destroyed, the number of businesses that have been destroyed and the small amount of lost lives,” Bryant said.
Dozens of people in the city were treated for nonlife-threatening injuries, including broken bones.
Widespread reports of residents not hearing tornado sirens in many parts of the city have led Emergency Management Agency employees to make plans to evaluate whether equipment worked. However, before that happens, the priority is on restoring power to an estimated 12,000 businesses and homes still in the dark.
Tombigbee Electric Power Association still had 8,000 customers without service in Lee and Itawamba counties, mostly in Lee, including businesses in the Barnes Crossing area. Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said most power should be restored this morning.
Three Lee County roads – 811, 1057 and 1766 – in the Auburn community will remain closed until electric utility workers restore broken connections. Utility workers from Tennessee and Kentucky and other parts of Mississippi have joined the local force to restore service.
About 4,125 Tupelo Water & Light customers were reported without power Monday afternoon. While no updated figures were available Tuesday, power was steadily being restored by the city.
Affected areas of Tupelo and Lee County remained under a strict curfew Tuesday night, and officials will decide today whether to keep it in effect to protect property from looting and prevent traffic from interfering with utility workers trying to restore power.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said the city’s cooperative spirit won’t allow the natural disaster to get the best of the community.
“We may be battered, but not beaten,” he said.