TUPELO • With the cutting of a yellow ribbon, Tupelo High School’s new multipurpose gymnasium is officially open.

School administrators and coaches were present to commemorate the opening of the $6.6 million facility.

Construction began in November 2017 and wrapped up in June, with a few finishing touches still being added.

So far, the gym has been used for boys and girls basketball practice and a couple of pep rallies. The original gym, which has a maximum capacity of about 1,400 people, is still used for volleyball, physical education classes, cheerleading and activities other than basketball.

The new gymnasium, which doubles as a storm shelter, seats 2,140 people, meaning all 1,940 students at THS can be present for school events or use the gym for protection during severe weather, Principal Art Dobbs said.

And the facility can hold even more people on the open floor in the case of a weather emergency, which is the primary reason for building it, TPSD director of operations Charles Laney said.

“There’s been several tornadoes in this area, and having the largest population of students in the state, that was one thing we were looking at – the safety of the kids,” Laney said. “It’s just an added benefit that we get to use it as a gym.”

The dome-shaped structure can withstand an EF-4 tornado, Laney said. An EF-4 can reach speeds of 200 mph, which is about 80 mph higher than the estimated 111 mph wind speed of the April 2014 tornado that damaged or destroyed 2,000 homes and 100 commercial structures in Tupelo.

A $2.1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped cover construction costs for the shelter.

“There’s a great need for FEMA shelters, for safe rooms like this, and we just looked at it as an opportunity to make our campus a lot more safe for our students and staff,” Dobbs said. “We also looked at it as an opportunity to make the community more safe – the bonus part was we get to double up and use it as an athletics facility, too.”

The gymnasium-shelter will be open to the community during severe storms outside of school hours. City officials will come in, take over the facility and protect more than 2,500 community members, if need be.

blake.alsup@journalinc.com

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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