Tupelo takes direct hit from large nighttime tornado

Published 7:26 am Monday, May 3, 2021

Nearly 100,000 Mississippi residents were under a tornado emergency on Sunday night, including the city of Tupelo, as a confirmed large and destructive tornado tore through the region.

Left in the wake of the night’s weather was damage strewn across three communities, inflicting destruction on buildings and downing power lines.

Shortly before 10 p.m. CDT, the National Weather Service (NWS) issued a dire warning for the city of Tupelo, calling the situation particularly dangerous and life threatening as a confirmed tornado charged toward the city.

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A tornado emergency can be issued when a large, destructive tornado has been on the ground for an extended period of time and is approaching a populated area.

“At 9:52 p.m. CDT, a confirmed large and destructive tornado was observed over Tupelo, moving northeast at 45 mph. TORNADO EMERGENCY for Tupelo. This is a PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION. TAKE COVER NOW,” the NWS warning said.

Local law enforcement has reported extensive residential damage around the Elvis Presley Museum Area in Tupelo, along with downed trees and power lines. Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

Around the Highway 151 area of town, local media reported a roof was torn off an apartment building.

The city of Tupelo’s Mayor’s Office released a statement on Facebook on Sunday night, stating that damage had been reported throughout the city.

“Emergency crews are currently assessing the degree of damage. Please do not get out and drive. It is dangerous–there are reports that power lines are down on the roads. We will update you as soon as we know the extent of damage. Prayers that all are safe, and please keep our crews and first responders in your prayers also,” the statement said.

Forecasters noticed a “debris ball” signature on radar as the storm charged toward Tupelo, indicating debris being picked up by a strong tornado and lofted high into the atmosphere.

Adding to the severity of the situation was the timing of the tornado. At night, tornadoes are extremely difficult to see.

“In parts of the south-central and southeastern United States, nighttime tornadoes are more common than in any other region of the nation,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll said.

Screen captures of a Mississippi Department of Transportation camera along Interstate 22 at Veterans Memorial Bridge showed what appeared to be a large tornado illuminated only by a flash of lightning, or possibly a power flash.

Tupelo was not the only place in Mississippi that endured damaging tornadoes on Sunday. The NWS’s Storm Prediction Center reported a preliminary total of 19 tornadoes in the state, along with one tornado in Louisiana.

The town of Calhoun City, Mississippi, was hit particularly hard about two hours prior to the devastation that ensued in Tupelo.

“The town of Calhoun City was hit hard tonight. Light poles have been snapped off. Trees in a few homes. Trees on vehicles. Damage to several businesses. Fortunately we have had no reports at this time of injuries. We are asking that you PLEASE STAY OFF THE ROADS AT THIS TIME. Emergency personnel are working feverishly to open the roads as quickly as possible,” the Calhoun County’s Sheriff’s Office said on Facebook.

Survey crews with the NWS will examine the extent and severity of the damage to determine the exact strength, width and path length of each of the tornadoes in the coming days.

In the meantime, forecasters urge residents to remain weather aware this week, as more rounds of severe weather are expected across the eastern-half of the nation through Tuesday.