Starting on Feb. 14, our region experienced a massive winter storm – the worst in many years. Unofficially referred to as Winter Storm Uri, the storm had widespread impacts across the Pacific Northwest and then moved into the Southern United States. This storm resulted in over 170 million Americans being placed under various winter weather alerts and caused blackouts for over 9.7 million people in the U.S. and Mexico. The storm caused power grids to fail across the U.S., causing blackouts for over 5 million homes and businesses, the vast majority of which were in Texas. By Feb. 19, the death toll attributed to the storm was 70, including 58 people in the U.S. and 12 people in Mexico.
Prediction of weather-related events has become very reliable with modern technology. We are able to prepare days in advance because of accurate weather predictions. The city of Tupelo took early action to prepare for the storm, issuing an executive order which went into effect on Feb. 14, declaring a local emergency due to the imminent winter storm. In activating this order, it allowed our city to operate its departments under emergency guidelines, implementing crews to service our roads and other important tasks related to the frigid temperatures, ice and snow. I commend our departments for their work to keep our city and citizens as safe as possible during this weather event. I felt it was important to recap their proactive work.
The ice and sleet started to fall around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday evening, but Tupelo Public Works had already begun salting bridges and icy spots earlier that day. TPW Director Chuck Williams split crews into three- and eight-hour shifts to continue their maintenance of major thoroughfare and arterial roads. Their work continued on Monday and Tuesday, and snowplows were tested for effectiveness on the ice. Because the plows are designed to push snow, not ice, it was important to test how well they would work. Snowplows were first used around the perimeter of North Mississippi Medical Center and Green Street. The plows were used all week, as well as salting the two-lane major roads – Thomas, Lawndale, Mitchell, Elvis Presley. Because the temperatures were so low, it made this work extremely difficult, as the plows could not penetrate the ice effectively. Backhoes and Bobcats were also implemented to clear ice and snow. On Thursday and Friday, crews continued their shift operations to clear streets and push slush off the roadways. By Saturday, the crews started working in neighborhoods to clear streets.
Both Tupelo Police Department and Tupelo Fire Department worked as normal during the storm, answering calls as they came in. TPD reported only one storm-related incident, rescuing a man who had fallen through the ice at Veterans Lake. TFD continued to answer calls the first few days – fire alarm calls, public service calls, as well as medical calls. By Thursday and the days following, TFD responded to several burst sprinkler lines in businesses and residential water lines from hot water heaters. Our firefighter heroes even provided mutual aid to the Birmingham Ridge Volunteer Fire Department, assisting to rescue a dog that had broken through the ice on a lake.
Tupelo Parks & Recreation crews assisted clean up, specifically downtown around Tupelo City Hall. TPR opened the two large city shelters at Theron Nichols Park and Lee Acres for citizens who needed shelter from the frigid temperatures. We were watching the weather closely and were positioned to open the BancorpSouth Arena should we experience power outages.
When our city experiences a winter storm with ice, snow and low temperatures, it is important to clear streets and respond to emergency calls. But most important is the safety of all of our citizens. The Tupelo Homeless Task Force did an outstanding job assisting people to the Salvation Army. I appreciate the Salvation Army opening their doors and providing shelter to those who needed it. Normally the Salvation Army cold shelter is open any evening after 8 p.m. when temperatures are 40 degrees and under. However, last week they kept their shelter open 24 hours to provide a warm place to stay.
We were extremely blessed that Tupelo and most of the surrounding areas did not have power outages. Tupelo Water & Light crews were on standby the entire week. The water treatment plant stayed in good operation and all elevated water tanks were at full capacity. Calls to TWL included a broken water main and cutting off water due to residential water line pipes bursting due to temperatures.
This was a winter storm we will not soon forget. Our businesses closed for a solid week and our schools went virtual. Considering the impact of the ice and snow, we managed to service our city and its citizens with positive results. I want to sincerely thank each city of Tupelo department for stepping up and getting the job done.