By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – The number of homes and businesses without power after this week’s tornado shrank considerably Wednesday with power crews working steadily all day.
Meanwhile, Mayor Jason Shelton said Wednesday night that President Barack Obama had declared Lee and six other Mississippi counties hit by tornadoes on Monday a disaster area, making them eligible for federal relief.
While thousands of homes and businesses in Tupelo and Lee County should see a resumption in power by today, others will have to wait longer.
Johnny Timmons, director of Tupelo Water & Light, said Wednesday a major transmission line on West Jackson Street spanning 14 utility poles requires significant repairs that will take days. Impacted residents include areas on West Jackson from Thomas Street east to Racove Drive, a length of about eight-tenths of a mile.
“Because of the magnitude of what we’re doing there, that will be one of our biggest jobs to finish,” Timmons said.
Hundreds of Tupeloans are still without power today.
Tennessee Valley Authority infrastructure damaged by Monday’s tornado returned to service Wednesday evening. Tombigbee Electric Power Association’s latest count was 117 without power in Itawamba County and 33 in Lee County, as of about 1 a.m. Thursday.
Electric utility workers from throughout the state and surrounding states joined with locals to restore power to homes and businesses as quickly as possible. Crews in Tupelo and Lee County traveled from as far away as Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana.
TVA officials said it was the largest power outage in its Mississippi service area in its 80-plus year history.
While crews worked to restore power, most of Mississippi’s congressional delegation traveled the state to view damage from 14 tornadoes that affected 21 counties.
U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran and U.S. Reps. Alan Nunnelee and Gregg Harper surveyed Tupelo neighborhoods, business areas and nearby rural locations damaged from Monday’s powerful tornado with wind speeds of 150 mph. Shelton accompanied the federal elected leaders, as did a representative of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Gov. Phil Bryant had sent President Obama a letter to request Mississippi be declared a national disaster area, allowing federal resources to filter into the state for recovery locations including Lee, Rankin and Winston counties, the hardest hit in the state.
“We’re going to make sure Mississippi gets every benefit it’s entitled to,” said Wicker, who lives in Tupelo. “We’re going back to Washington to deliver the message of what we see here.”
State and local officials estimate recovery will take months. In Tupelo alone, Shelton estimated millions of dollars in business and residential damage.
A dozen Mississippi deaths have been reported as part of this week’s severe weather. Other weather-related deaths were reported in Arkansas and Alabama, where Tupelo native and University of Alabama student John Servati died after a retaining wall collapsed in his home. The lone storm-related fatality in Lee County was Cassandra Blansett, 39, of Pontotoc, who died in a one-vehicle accident on Palmetto Road on Monday.
Wicker and Nunnelee, who also lives in Tupelo, said television images they saw from Washington, D.C., didn’t prepare them for up-close looks at the destruction.
“The early warning systems saved lives,” Nunnelee said.