OXFORD – Oxford and Lafayette County emergency response crews – medical, rescue and utility – were in the thick of recovery efforts in two communities hit hard by this week’s tornado outbreak. Multiple storm systems early in the week left nearly three dozen people dead across the South, with Louisville and Tupelo among the Mississippi towns affected.
“When it hit, the state mobilized Mississippi Task Force 1,” said Oxford Emergency Management Director Jimmy Allgood, who went with the team to Tupelo. “We mobilized our search-and-rescue unit from here (Oxford Fire Department) along with DeSoto County and Batesville.”
The tornado hit Tupelo shortly after 3 p.m. Monday, and by 2 a.m. Tuesday the primary searches were complete, he said, and damage assessments began.
On Tuesday, MED II State Medical Assistance Team, headquartered at Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi, deployed to Louisville, whose hospital took a direct hit from a tornado. Among their workers was Lafayette County Emergency Management Director David Shaw.
“We had 17 health professionals, basically working scratches, bruises and broken bones. Anytime you’re working with storm debris, you’ll have injuries – chainsaw cuts, nails in feet,” said John Robinson, the team’s coordinator. “We had physicians, RNs, paramedics, X-ray techs, respiratory therapists.”
Despite having equipment and transportation sufficient to build a mobile hospital, MED II SMAT was not requested by the Mississippi State Department of Health to take equipment or much supplies. Instead, they set up a minor-care clinic in Louisville’s Walmart parking lot.
“For a logistics guy, that was great,” Robinson said. “If we needed something, we’d step into our supply warehouse – Walmart – with my credit card.
“Our whole concept was basically catch- and-release: Get them in, triage, treat what we can and refer them elsewhere if needed.”
People who needed advanced care were sent to Starkville or Columbus hospitals for further treatment.
Oxford Electric Department and North East Mississippi Electric Power Association were among the crews sent to Tupelo to help secure and replace downed power lines.
“We’ve had a four-man, three-truck crew helping Tupelo Water & Light restore power, building new overhead lines,” said Oxford Electric Superintendent Rob Neely, who said Wednesday it wasn’t certain how long they would work. FEMA disaster-relief funding will likely reimburse participating utilities for their labor and material costs.
Ironically, this is Oxford Electric’s first disaster deployment since Neely became department head nearly two years ago. Its last previous deployment was in April 2011, helping North East Mississippi Electric Power Association restore service after tornadoes strafed Lafayette County in April 2011, the day that others killed dozens of people in Smithville, Mississippi, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
North East Power also provided help to restore lines in the Tupelo area.
“We sent 15 guys and most of our equipment to Tupelo right away,” said NEMEPA Manager Keith Hayward. Among its specialized equipment were a digger truck and bucket truck, both of which are mounted on tracks.
“City utilities tend to have equipment designed for working from pavement,” he said. “The rural cooperatives have to have more equipment that can work off-road.”
Other groups also have been involved in the disaster relief effort. Students at the University of Mississippi set up a collection station in front of the Union, and Christ Presbyterian Church and the Ole Miss Wesley Foundation were among church-related organizations collecting items from bottled water and non-perishable foods to toiletries for tornado-ravaged areas.