Volunteers expected to be out in force

I'm a journalist focused on government, policy, politics and people.
I find what matters and bird dog it like nobody's business.

news_inthenews_greenBy Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Volunteers who could number in the thousands are expected to spend this weekend helping Tupelo and Lee County residents hit hard by Monday’s tornado that left millions of dollars in damage.

As volunteers work to move debris to the curbs of damaged properties and provide other assistance for those in need, city crews will also start assisting in neighborhoods.

United Way of Northeast Mississippi will coordinate volunteers at the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau on East Main Street beginning at 7 a.m. today.

“Volunteers can come anytime during the day Saturday or Sunday,” said Melinda Tidwell, United Way executive director. “They’ll mostly be doing cleanup work, picking up limbs and sticks.”

Efforts will concentrate in all parts of the city affected by the tornado, along with the Auburn community in Lee County.

The CVB building will serve as a center to help organize volunteers to ensure they’re spread out to all areas in need of help. It will also help track volunteer efforts to help recoup recovery expenses related to the federally designated disaster area.

“We want people to volunteer and this increases the benefit to the city by checking in,” said Mayor Jason Shelton. “It’s a win-win.”

On the first weekend since the EF-3 tornado with wind speed of 150 mph, volunteer organizers aren’t sure how many to expect but anticipate many people from in and outside the community willing to donate time to assist in cleanup of Tupelo’s worst natural disaster in decades.

More than 150 Tupelo Water & Light and other electric utility linemen from other communities and states continue working to restore power to residents. More than 16,000 homes and businesses in the city, Lee and Itawamba counties were without power after the tornado whirled through but outage numbers have shrunk to less than 400 where it can be safely restored.

Since President Barack Obama declared Lee among Mississippi’s counties to qualify for federal assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to officially open an office in Tupelo on Sunday.

City and county officials currently are working to identify private companies to serve as project managers on behalf of the local governments to keep rigorous paperwork required for FEMA reimbursement. Both are expected to select companies next week.

Shelton said the city is evaluating whether to contract short term for debris removal to get neighborhoods and businesses through the first wave of debris collection.

“We want to make the best decision for the city of Tupelo,” Shelton said. “We have to be both quick and right.”

robbie.ward@journalinc.com