By Riley Manning
TUPELO – Red Cross and BancorpSouth Arena employees worked frantically Monday afternoon to prepare the BancorpSouth Arena as a shelter for Tupeloans displaced by the tornado.
As of 6 p.m., around 60 were gathered for refuge and safety. Many sat with their families or pets, dazed with disbelief.
“There aren’t many now, but we’re expecting a lot more to come in,” said Sarah Rogers, with Red Cross disaster services. “We’re bringing in cots, pillows, and blankets from Fulton, then we’ll start getting the food.”
Shamone Stephens and Rahel Imon fled their residences at the Nation Hills apartments when trees began to fall.
“I didn’t think it would get so bad,” Imon said. “The damage is very bad.”
She was thankful, she said, her two children were safe.
Stephens was in her residence when the storm started, and was most concerned for her grandson, who was with her.
“In 42 years this is the most scared I’ve ever been,” Stephens said. “The apartments are destroyed.”
Tupelo High School student Jailon Franklin said he was with his mother and sister at their home in the West Jackson Street area when the power went out.
“I heard the trees falling and all I could think about was one coming through the roof,” he said. “When we left, our house was OK, we just came here for safety.”
Nancy Kelly, who lives in the Joyner neighborhood, said though her house received minimal damage she worried about her and her husband being stranded without their medications.
“We watched a tree fall through our neighbor’s house, so we left without them,” she said. “I mean they were pulled up by the roots. We’re waiting for the streets to be cleared. It feels like we’re cut off from everything.”
Richie Sansone, head of security for the arena, said he and his staff were willing to stay as long as it took to make sure everyone was taken care of.
“We’re going to play it by ear until the Red Cross comes up with an alternate shelter,” he said. “After Katrina, we had people sheltered here for 21 days, so we’re prepared to handle anything.”
By 9 p.m., Red Cross volunteer Cheryl Kocurek said the number of victims had increased to 80, and they expected an additional 30 by the end of the night. Since residents started arriving, cots, food and a place for tornado victims’ pets has been set up inside the arena. A medical staff also was brought on sight to treat minor injuries and provide people with medicines they did not bring with them.
“Now that a sense of normalcy has been established, their spirits are much higher,” Kocurek said.
Over the next few days, she said, Red Cross will send teams into the community to assess the damage to houses and talk with families about their resources. In the meantime, local organizations have already stepped in to lend a hand.
“Lowe’s has contributed water and snacks, and the Tupelo-Lee Humane society has provided cages and food for the pets,” Kocurek said. “After the assessment, we’ll begin recovery phase of finding a more permanent residence.”