In the wake of the tornado that hit our city on Monday, April 28, 2014, the City of Tupelo is battered, but we certainly are not beaten. As a city, we have overcome obstacles before, and we will again. We will continue to flourish as a united community with a common goal of progress and unity for our citizens.
On April 3, 2011, in an article about the deadly 1936 tornado, the Daily Journal’s Joe Rutherford wrote:
“The fourth-deadliest tornado in American history leveled 48 blocks of Tupelo and killed at least 216 people on the night of April 5, 1936, a natural disaster engraved in the minds of the dwindling number of eyewitness survivors.
“Its grim toll has been impressed on succeeding family and friend generations as a life-changing event from which the community not only recovered, but thrived and grew, in part because of what today is called the Tupelo Spirit but also with a lot of help from the outside.”
In 1936, it was Rep. John Rankin who influenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to aid in the Tupelo recovery efforts. In 2014, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the state’s entire Washington delegation lobbied President Barack Obama for aid and, once again, it is being delivered.
Gov. Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn also used their influence to send help our way in the special session in Jackson on Thursday. In our time of need, our state and federal leaders have responded quickly and compassionately in delivering much needed assistance. Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley and TVA have been with us every step of the way.
As of Friday, less than two weeks after the tornado, we have received state and federal disaster declarations, retained both monitoring and debris removal firms, replaced over 100 broken light poles to restore power to every street in the city, removed enough debris from every street in the city to make it passable and have taken an “all hands on deck” approach to city resources being utilized for recovery. This process will continue until the task is completed. The recovery process will not be quick or easy, but it will be successful.
The recovery will be successful because of the resilience of our citizens, the leadership and generosity of organizations like the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the United Way and the leadership team of the City of Tupelo. By the nature of the position, the mayor often gets credit for a successful effort, but the reality is that the department heads do the heavy lifting.
When the tornado hit, Chief Operating Officer Don Lewis and I immediately initiated the emergency response protocol. Fire Chief Thomas Walker, pursuant to that protocol, assumed operational control and performed with remarkable strength under intense pressure. Police Chief Bart Aguirre, Public Works Director Chuck Williams and Tupelo Water & Light Director Johnny Timmons each went to work immediately conducting both “search and rescue” and “recovery and restoration” operations. Our communications, legal and finance teams went to work immediately to gather and distribute information as we could confirm it and to make sure those with boots on the ground had the resources they needed to respond to any situation. Dr. Gearl Loden and his administrative team acted quickly to protect our school children and get them back to a normal classroom environment as quickly as possible after the storm.
Additionally, each member of the Tupelo City Council has been passionately involved in the recovery effort and has worked to expedite the process as much as possible. The council has responded quickly and efficiently during this time of crisis and made a full force effort at the special session in Jackson to express our needs and concerns to state officials. This effort will save the City of Tupelo millions of dollars as we rebuild.
Likewise, our delegation of senators and representatives in Jackson have each been in constant contact with the city, helping here on the ground and fighting for us in Jackson. Our leaders like Sen. Nancy Collins, Sen.r Hob Bryan, Sen. Russell Jolly, Rep. Steve Holland, Rep. Randy Boyd, Rep. Jerry Turner, Rep. Brian Aldridge and others have been there with us every step of the way. I cannot express enough gratitude for these individuals. I do, however, want to take a moment to express a special thanks to one of our representatives.
In the aftermath of the shooting on Dec. 23, 2013 that claimed the life of Sgt. Gale Stauffer and critically wounded Officer Joseph Maher of the Tupelo Police Department, Rep. Steve Holland led the charge which resulted in the passage of the “Gale Stauffer, Jr. and Joseph Maher Law Enforcement Appreciation Act of 2014.”
It was an honor to, at his insistence, sit in Rep. Holland’s chair on the floor of the House of Representatives on Thursday as he delivered what was described by the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison as an “impassioned speech that grabbed the attention of the entire House and [Governor] Bryant, who was in the chamber.”
After Rep. Holland’s speech ended, so did the debate, and help was on the way for Tupelo, Lee and Itawamba Counties, as well as Louisville, Winston County and the other areas devastated by tornados that damaged much of our great State on April 28. It was difficult to hold back emotions as I watched Gov. Bryant walk over to Rep. Holland and thank him for his heartfelt plea for assistance.
The last two weeks have again proven to me what I have always known: the Tupelo Spirit is still going strong and when Mississippians work together, we are unstoppable.
Jason Shelton is in his first term as Tupelo mayor.