Michael Bible / Al Jazeera

After tornado, Mississippi residents survey damage, plan to rebuild

Storms like the one that hit Tupelo are all too normal, survivors say, even as they intend to build again

TUPELO, Miss. — Driving into town on Highway 6, there isn’t much sign of tornado damage until Gloster Road. There the randomness of the storm appears. A Waffle House remains open thanks to a generator, while the gas station next door is completely flattened, identifiable only by a surviving gas pump.

On Monday afternoon, a half-mile-wide tornado ripped through Tupelo, leaving crushed houses, flipped cars and displaced residents in its wake. It was one of a number of storms that have battered the Southeast United States this week, leaving at least 30 dead.

Tupelo is no stranger to calamities like this. In 1936 the city suffered one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, which obliterated one neighborhood completely and dropped residents’ bodies in a nearby pond. One of the survivors was Tupelo’s most famous resident, Elvis Presley. The storm killed more than 216 people, but newspapers at the time published only the names of injured whites. Some historians believe the number of dead and injured was actually much higher.

In 2008, during the Super Tuesday tornado outbreak, a storm hit Tupelo and went on to destroy Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The storm that hit Monday followed a similar path. A University of Alabama swimmer, John Servati, was killed in the Tuscaloosa storm this week. After saving his girlfriend, he was crushed by a retaining wall.

The Lynn Circle neighborhood just off Gloster Road was one of the worst hit. With the sound of helicopters overhead and chainsaws cutting fallen tree limbs, John Bolin, a longtime resident of Tupelo, says he’s helping his daughter move out of her destroyed house, which a massive tree split right down the middle.

“You can hear the house cracking in half when the wind blows,” he says. He’s not sure what he’s going to do next. “State Farm put her up in a motel, but the motel doesn’t have power.” He sighs. “It’s gonna be a total rebuild.”

Just down the street Tim Lepard stands by a red, white and blue truck that has “Wild Thang” painted on the side. “I’m from Pontotoc,” he says, “but I come over to help cause I was in a tornado myself. Got blown out my front door. Got this.” He shows a long scar on his arm. “I’m a rodeo clown by trade. Got the monkeys that ride dogs, but I do what I can when things like this happen. I do everything 110 percent for my country.”

Four National Guard soldiers are posted at the entrance of Lynn Circle. One directs traffic while the others hang out in the shade of a Humvee. There’s an empty pizza box on the seat, and one of them sips an energy drink. They’re here to watch for looters and rubberneckers, but most of the traffic in and out is from residents and volunteers. Sgt. Joseph Inman says he’s done this kind of work so many times before it’s almost become routine. “I worked Smithville three years ago. There was nothing left of that town.” The soldiers are enforcing the curfew tonight. “It’s at 8 o’clock,” he says. “I think. Or maybe 10.”   

Melissa Duke is the manager of the Outback Steak House on Gloster Road. “I’d just come in for my shift at 2,” she says. “We stood outside till we could see it. It was huge and black, and we all ran to the bathroom. We were lucky. Only cosmetic damage.” There’s a team in the restaurant helping with cleanup. “Our regional VP is here, and all our employees, our company, dealt with this kind of thing during Katrina, so they know what to do.” She smiles. “We’ll be open in a week.”

Next door at the locally owned Vanelli’s Restaurant, the scene is much different. Half of the building is collapsed. It’s likely going to be a total loss. A broken ATM exposes money inside. Amid the wreckage, there are still full plates of food on tables, with forks in them, as if the diners had to rush for safety midbite.

Diners at Vanelli's Restaurant left plates of food when the tornado tore through Tupelo on Monday.

The owner, Voz Vanelli, wears a long white beard and wire-rimmed glasses. Some longtime supporters of the restaurant hold flashlights for him as he puts important documents in a box in his office. “My father came to America from Greece to escape the turmoil,” he says. “In 1975 he founded this restaurant. In 1991 we moved it to this location. In 2014 a tornado hit.” He pauses. “But that’s not the end of the story. Just the end of a chapter.” Eyevan Armas, a local artist, stands beside him holding a flashlight. He says Vanelli’s is an institution, more than just a restaurant: “It’s a place for artists.” Voz Vanelli’s spirit for the community he’s been a part of building is apparent from the conviction in his voice. “I’m just another tornado victim,” he says. “The real story is how this will affect the people [who] came here.”

Not far away, people are crowded into the McDonald’s on South Gloster, one of the only places close by with power and wireless Internet access. UPS trucks are still running outside, and the clogged traffic from the storm site thins out as you move south. A woman says a prayer over her Big Mac.

Residents are moving on. Few storm-related injuries were reported in Tupelo; there were no deaths. But just down the road in Louisville, Miss., Ruth Bennett, a day care worker, was found dead clutching a toddler in her hands. The Associated Press reported that “the fate of the toddler was not immediately known” — a stark reminder of the rapidity and randomness of such powerful storms.

Tupelo will rebuild, but storms like this are all too normal. John Bolin, from Lynn Circle, says he rode out the tornado in a safe room in his house. As he looks at his daughter’s destroyed home he pauses for a second, a bit choked up. He points to the sky. “See those clouds up there?” he says. They are black, almost purple. “That doesn’t look good.”

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