Path of destruction: Tornado rips through Tupelo area

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UPDATE (3:12 p.m.):

• Waste Management says some services might be delayed or rescheduled due to the conditions following Monday’s severe weather and related safety concerns. It will provide garbage collection in areas deemed safe. WM urges customers to keep normal household garbage separate from debris created by the storm.

• The National Weather Service says the tornado has been upgraded to EF3 status.

• The Dudie Burger Festival scheduled for this weekend has been canceled.

• Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said County Road 811 is shut down until further notice.

• Tupelo and Lee County are coordinating their emergency response.

Latest figures are that approximately 2,000 residences and 100 commercial structures in the city were damaged or destroyed. In Lee County outside Tupelo, the figure was 131 residences and two commercial buildings.

Tombigbee Electric Power Association reports 8,232 customers in Lee County without power this morning. An eight-mile transmission line will have to be repaired at a cost of $800,000, county officials were told.

Tupelo Power & Light reports 4,125 customers still without power.

• Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley is alerting utility customers affected by the storms that his office will be available 24 hours a day during the aftermath to assist customers as services are restored.

Presley particularly stresses that the most vulnerable, senior citizens and those whose health is endangered by prolonged periods without vital utility services should not be hesitant to seek the assistance of the PSC.

“Our utilities are working tirelessly to restore service, and I and my staff will be available around the clock to support them and to aid affected customers in any way we can,” Presley said. “With the extremely high volume of calls our utilities are receiving, the PSC will be available to help take and relay information so that the most vulnerable customers are prioritized and further tragedies are averted. If your health is threatened by a lack of vital services, call our office immediately so that we can be there to assist.”

Affected customers are asked to contact Presley’s office at 1 (800) 637-7722 to seek assistance. The extended, 24-hour schedule will remain in force until major utility restoration efforts have been completed in the Northern District.

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By Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – A devastating tornado with at least 111-mph winds rocked Tupelo and Lee County on Monday, whirling trees onto houses, crumpling up businesses and leaving a trail of unknown injuries and at least one death.

Powerful storm systems passing through Arkansas, Mississippi and other states in recent days didn’t spare Northeast Mississippi, leaving thousands of residents in the dark from power outages and uncertain safety in hardest-hit neighborhoods.

Tupelo tornado path

Tupelo tornado path

The twister ploughed through west Tupelo and headed north, while much of the area received significant residential damage.

“We have experienced a tornado that touched down that hasn’t been experienced in decades,” Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said during an evening news conference at City Hall. “There is widespread destruction in business and residential neighborhoods.”

Shelton declared a state of emergency for the city to help clear the way for state and federal resources to assist with public safety and rebuilding damaged areas. He spoke with Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves during the day about state assistance available.

Just after the tornado passed through Tupelo, photos of damaged or demolished hotels, restaurants and gas stations along North Gloster Street surfaced on Twitter, Facebook and other social media showing fragments of destroyed metal and other building materials.

“It’s real bad,” said Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre after the tornado left the area. “We’re pulling people out.”

Late Monday evening, North Mississippi Medical Center’s emergency room had treated 30 storm-related injuries, 26 of them minor. None was life-threatening.

A Pontotoc woman was killed on Palmetto Road in Lee County when the driver’s vehicle slid off the road. Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green said Cassandra Blansett, 39, was driving on Palmetto Road sometime before 3: 18 p.m. when her light-weight SUV left the road. Green said she can’t tell if the vehicle hydroplaned, was pushed off the road by wind or a combination. She confirmed it was weather related.

National Weather Service crews will investigate today the tornado’s beginning and end. They initially rated the twister’s strength at EF2, which brings winds of 111-135 mph and power to uproot treets and lift cars from the ground, but that has since been upgraded to an EF3, with wind speeds up to 150 mph.

Businesses including Comfort Suites, La Quinta Inn & Suites, a Sprint Mart convenience store, Steak Escape and Vanelli’s were all identified as not structurally sound, said Sarah Robinson, spokeswoman for the city of Tupelo.

Tupelo, a city of about 35,000, has a history of harassment by tornadoes. A ferocious EF5 tornado with winds up to 318 mph flattened the city in 1936, destroying more than 200 homes, killing 216 people and injuring more than 700.

Mother Nature spared most people’s lives this time around, but the city and county will continue to cope for months, maybe years. Several neighborhoods that had lush treescapes will look very different now.

Bent over billboards bare of any advertising remained as nearby crews worked into the evening to restore broken electric power lines.

Tupelo and other areas included in Lee County had more than 16,000 residents without power, many likely to remain without electricity for at least 24 hours.

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said the storm damaged Tombigbee Electric Power Association substations, impacting Tennessee Valley Authority power lines.

Law enforcement continued to monitor intersections along the Joyner neighborhood on Monday night to prevent looting of homes damaged from the storm. First responders searched the area house-by-house earlier in the day to ensure no one was trapped by debris.

Dozens of injuries sustained include broken arms, legs and ribs.

The Red Cross opened a shelter in at the BancorpSouth Arena to provide food and shelter for displaced residents. Authorities urged residents to stay away from neighborhoods where loose power lines posed danger and Atmos Energy workers continued through the evening to shut off gas leaks in at least five areas including Joyner and Bel Air neighborhoods.

A day after Shelton and Tupelo officials visited Smithville as the small city marked three years after a tornado that wiped out the community, Tupelo’s leaders continued to assess damage here. Shelton said he would arrive at City Hall at 4 a.m. today to resume recovery from the storm.

The Lee County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. today to assess damage in the county.

Tupelo and Lee County schools, public and private, will be closed today after letting students out early Monday in anticipation of bad weather.

Residents of Crabapple Drive off Thomas Street in west Tupelo showed no signs of injuries less than an hour after the tornado left the city. However, mature trees scattered along front yards, damaged roofs and scattered debris appeared throughout the street.

Adrian Brim was at work in east Tupelo while the tornado passed near her 2029 Crabapple, where her two teenage sons, nephews and husband sought protection from damaging weather.

Brim received a text message from her sons reporting their “house was shaking.”

She arrived home to find damage to her roof and fence but family intact.

“I was just praying for God to take care of them,” she said.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com