“This is a tornado ripping through the city of Tupelo as we speak and this could be deadly."
You may have seen the video of WTVA chief meteorologist Matt Laubhan charting the course of the EF3 tornado that ripped through parts of Elvis’s birth city a year ago. From the live set he first directed the newsroom to evacuate and then had to flee himself.
"... Basement, NOW! Let's go!"
Within a few seconds, it was all over, leaving a wide swath of destruction. Jason Shelton is Tupelo’s mayor.
“There was damage to 650 homes, and 50 commercial buildings. As far as the monetary value – it’s in the tens of millions of dollars,” says Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton.
Today, one of the hardest hit areas, the Joyner neighborhood, is dotted with newly constructed or recently repaired homes. Building is still ongoing. Some repairs have taken longer than expected. At St. Luke United Methodist Church asbestos needed to be removed first before the actual rebuilding could begin.
A class of St. Luke pre-schoolers, aged 4 and 5, are happily playing house, serving each other plastic food from the play kitchen. They and about 40 other children are still in temporary accommodations across town at St. James Catholic Church. Stephanie Roland, who heads the children’s weekday ministries at St. Luke, is grateful that the church’s preschool program was interrupted only for a short period.
“We were back on our feet in less than a month. The tornado was April 28th, we were here on May 27th,” Roland notes not without pride.
Meanwhile, Roland’s office is still mobile and consists of a laptop, Internet hot spot, and supplies that move in and out of her car daily.
“I have learned and grown more than I ever have. I have been in this job for ten years and this last year I have learnt to adapt," Roland says. "I have no routine, I have no comfort zone anymore. But it’s been a good thing. And neither do my teachers, by the way. But they have learnt to adapt and just hit the ground running.”
She hopes to be back at St. Luke’s in the fall. But not everyone is rebuilding. Gene O’Callaghan used to live right around the corner from the church in the house that his parents built at 1205 Kincannon Street. He had suffered a mild stroke a couple of months earlier and was huddled in his bathroom when the tornado struck.
“And I grabbed a blanket and doubled it over my head and sat down on the top of the commode. And I heard brrrrrrr, BOOM! And at that time a tree fell on my head, landed on my shoulder here. It stunned me quite a bit, but I mean I was very lucky," O'Callaghan remembers. "Very, very lucky.”
By the time O’Callaghan managed to scramble out, he found his house damaged beyond repair, carved open by the fallen tree. Now, the 74-year old lives with his sister and her husband in another part of Tupelo.
“I’ll probably stay here. I am just too old to build a house. We will probably in the future sell the lot. But I miss the neighborhood though.”
Not far from his old home stands Joyner Elementary School that was also damaged. Allyson McGraw is a first-grade teacher there. Driving over to her own house that sustained some $40,000 in damage, she points to the visible scars in the townscape.
“All of these homes right here on the right… there’s four new homes… but there’s still one, two homes that have not been built back. All of these homes were destroyed.”
A few months before the tornado struck, McGraw had planned on moving to the country. Then the tornado warning came and her family, including her two daughters, husband, mother-in-law, and grandparents-in-law all huddled in her basement as the house above them was damaged. Now, standing on her new porch, McGraw is pointing to the entrance of her basement below. She suddenly hesitates.
“I can’t go in there. I mean, I’ll cry. I have not even been back in there. All our blankets, the cooler, the radio – it’s in there," McGraw says. "Our Christmas decorations are in there and I just send my husband down for whatever is in there. I could be really brave and take you in there. But I have not been in there for a year, ashamed to say.”
But a storm has a certain way of putting things in perspective, she says.
“I remember thinking after the storm, I will never move. I will die in this house because I know I have a basement that works… if I go back in .. and I hope we’ll never have to. But we are happy here.”
And so the recovery effort continues, mentally and physically, a full year after the tornado.