Tuesday, April 26, 2011

TOP STORY >> Air base digs out after tornado

Leader staff writer

Approximately 100 homes were damaged, and about half completely demolished, in a storm at Little Rock Air Force Base on Monday night. Two C-130Es and one C-130H model aircraft were damaged, but the extent of the damage is not yet known.

“I was watching (the tornado) when the power went out,” Col. Mike Minihan, 19th Airlift Wing and Little Rock Air Force Base installation commander, said during a press conference Tuesday morning, referring to Monday night’s storm.

The base was functioning on 25 percent electricity when Minihan spoke. Full power was restored around noon Tuesday.

The tornado hit at 8 p.m., according to Minihan, with devastating results to housing, infrastructure, aircraft and more. He said a tornado warning came from the National Weather Service around 7 p.m.

“We knew we were in imminent danger,” the commander said.

The base holds regular exercises to test readiness for emergencies, tornadoes being one of those airmen train for.

Several injuries were reported, but only three people were taken to the hospital. An infant’s foot was cut, an airman suffered a back injury from debris and an Army officer received cuts. All three were treated and released.

Several vehicles were tossed and turned over in the BX parking lot. Several trees were broken or uprooted. Electric poles were snapped in two and the base skate park was damaged.

Airmen were assessing the base’s aircraft Tuesday morning. “It’s still too early to tell, but the damage looks significant,” Minihan told the media. “We are concerned for our fellow airmen and Vilonia.”

Twenty-five families had relocated to lodging on base. It’s estimated those displaced by the storm damage will be in temporary housing for at least a month, according to Minihan.

Although there were no serious injuries, some base residents needed help to get out of their homes. “No one was pinned,” Minihan said. “They just needed a clear path to get out.”

Members of the 19th and 314th airlift wings were out assessing the damage and cleaning up when possible. Air National Guard members had gone to Vilonia to assist in the cleanup. Four people are reported dead and 12 reported missing in Vilonia after a suspected tornado ripped through the area.

Minihan told reporters his top priority Tuesday was 100 percent accountability of members of the installation and their families, assessing damage and preparing for a second round of storms slated for Tuesday night.

“We have plenty of manpower,” he said. “The community jumped in to help.

“Watching people, without having to be told, help was amazing,” he continued.

Some phones were out during and after the storm hit the base, leading to some door-to-door activity to account for those in base housing.

Minihan said anyone scheduled to deploy who may have been affected by the storms will stay and take care of family before deployment. But that should not have much of an impact on the base’s upcoming deployments.

“At this time, we are asking for your thoughts and prayers,” Minihan said. “We are thankful to our community, especially Mayor (Gary) Fletcher, who was out immediately with a team to help.”

Minihan also asked for thoughts and prayers for residents of Vilonia.

Jacksonville Police Chief Gary Sipes offered his department’s support.

“Our community needs to know how special they are,” Minihan said of the communities surrounding the base. He said people can help, ranging from clothing to financial, to aid the families who were affected.

The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office reported homes near 2832 Valentine Road were damaged; trees down at Reeves Recycling on Hwy. 161; power lines were down at Hwy. 89 and Hwy. 107 East; trees were on the home at 303 W. Carmichael Road; trees and power lines were down at 411 W. Republican Road; power lines down at Hwy. 70 near Galloway; fallen trees at East Carmichael Road and Hwy. 5, and trees were down in the 18104 block of Hwy. 365.

All branches of Arkansas Federal Credit Union are accepting donations for Little Rock Air Force Base families who lost their homes. For details, call the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce at 501-982-1511.