- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Vanelli’s Greek & Italian Restaurant has been a landmark for nearly 40 years, but in the wake of Monday’s devastating tornado, owner Voz Vanelli isn’t sure what his next steps will be.

“It’s just way too early to decide whether I’ll rebuild,” an emotionally drained Vanelli said Tuesday. “I’m thankful for all the outpouring of support, the sympathy . but there’s a lot to think about.”

As the tornado bore down Monday on the area of North Gloster Street where the restaurant is located, Vanelli said he gathered the employees and customers inside the cooler to wait out the storm.

“There were 13 or 14 of us, and in 10-15 seconds it was all over,” he said quietly. “I opened the door and it was complete destruction. We were fortunate to be alive.”

What the people in Vanelli’s experienced was repeated all along the busy North Gloster Street corridor, where Monday’s tornado spared few, if any structures.

A portion of the roof of Comfort Suites was ripped off, and the adjacent Sleep Inn was smacked hard. The Steak Escape was all but demolished. Express Oil was little more than a shell of a building. The Sprint Mart Shell at the Green Street/North Gloster intersection was leveled. Across North Gloster, the Texaco station, along with Margerete’s Fine Chocolates, were pummeled.

The Crye-Leike Plaza, home to three restaurants, a liquor store, a frozen yogurt store and the offices of the real estate company, had parts of its roof peeled off and windows shattered.

John Mark Elliot, co-owner of Lost Pizza Co. in the plaza, said he was fortunate to lose only part of his roof and the condenser to the walk-in cooler.

“There’s heavy damage next to us, behind us, in front of us. We feel really lucky,” he said.

But he, too, is in no hurry to reopen the restaurant anytime soon. Besides, it will take weeks of processing insurance claims and finding contractors to help rebuild.

“We can make a pizza anytime,” Elliot said. “I’m just happy everybody was safe.”

As business owners tackle the long road to recovery, many will face daunting challenges.

Bruce Patel, whose Fusion Hospitality group owns hotels across the region, including a handful in Tupelo, was almost overwhelmed at the sight of what remained of his company’s four-story Comfort Suites.

The hotel, which opened in 2008, had the back of its roof blown away. The sprinkler system also was triggered, soaking everything the heavy winds and rain hadn’t touched as the tornado passed over.

Hotel employees and customers were evacuated to the stairwells of the facility, where they rode out the tornado.

On Tuesday, Patel was surveying the damage. “There’s just damage everywhere,” Patel said. “We’re just sorting through a mess.”

Like Vanelli, he’s unsure if he will rebuild.

“There’s a lot to consider,” he said.

Less than a half-mile away from ground zero of Monday’s tornado, the Blue Canoe bar, restaurant and entertainment spot took a moderate hit, but nothing major was damaged.

“We’re lucky and we’re still standing,” said owner Adam Morgan, who was volunteering Tuesday to help clean up hard-hit areas of Tupelo.

He was able to salvage his food and put it in cold storage until electricity returns to his establishment.

“Ideally, we’d open in a few days, but that’s not likely,” he said.

Back at Crye-Leike Plaza, Oscar’s Fine Wine & Spirits owner Henry King said cleaning out the debris from inside the store and preventing more water from getting inside were top priorities. Then it’s a visit from the insurance adjuster and getting matters in order before rebuilding.

“And we’re going to come back,” King vowed.

His neighbor in the plaza, the Neon Pig cafe, suffered similar damage.

Co-owner Mitch McCamey also was helping clean up a storm-whipped neighborhood,

“We’ll be OK,” he said.

His priority, though, at least on this day, was to give other city residents a helping hand.

“Right now, I’m not too concerned about reopening the restaurant as much as I’m concerned about helping others,” McCamey said.


Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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