Wednesday, April 30, 2014

TOP STORY >> Deadly storm: Horror of it all

Leader staff writer

A National Weather Service-trained storm spotter broadcast over the Central Arkansas Radio Emergency Network that there were “bodies everywhere” after Sunday’s tornado struck Vilonia, May-flower and El Paso.

The Leader has received an unconfirmed report from a volunteer that a body was removed from debris near Clover Ridge Drive in Vilonia on Tuesday morning.

But an Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokesman said Tuesday afternoon that there were 15 confirmed deaths and the last of those was confirmed Monday evening.

If the department confirms that there was a 16th fatality, Sunday’s tornado will become the most deadly the state has seen since 1968, when 35 Arkansans were killed. That is according to the National Weather Service.

The volunteer also said people who were accompanied by American Red Cross staff told him two residents were still missing Tuesday morning.

Three of the 15 confirmed victims were children, ages 14, 8 and 7. The series of storms caused 30 deaths in the South.

Eleven people died in Faulkner County. There were three fatalities in Pulaski County and one in El Paso.

Surviving residents, along with volunteers from all over the state, were picking up debris and doing what they could to help after downtown Vilonia was opened on Tuesday.

At least half the businesses and homes on Main Street were destroyed. In some places, nothing but a concrete slab was left.

FEMA personnel arrived Tuesday afternoon after President Barack Obama declared a disaster for Faulkner County, making federal aid available to those who were affected.

Victims who need assistance are encouraged to call 1-800-621-FEMA or visit

According to a preliminary report released by the National Weather Service on Tuesday, the devastating tornado was at least an EF3, meaning it had 136-165 mph winds.

Resident James Smith and an insurance adjuster were touring his damaged home on Main Street on Monday.

He took cover in a hallway before the tornado struck.

“It was scary. You could hear it coming…Before I hunkered down, I saw it coming. It looked bigger than the one three years ago. It didn’t look good, sounded even worse,” Smith said. “It did more damage this time.”

Austin Hightower of Vilonia agreed. He said, “It was pretty horrific.” Hightower also lived through the April 25, 2011 tornado that killed four residents.

He said this one was much worse. “Last time, it kind of jumped. This one just went and went and went,” Hightower explained.

He was serving hamburgers to volunteers and survivors on Tuesday afternoon with Lisa Lawrence and another resident.

The other resident said he and his son helped search the Black Oak Ranch Estates subdivision for people. He described finding one injured family.

The resident said, “It was pretty rough. We found him down the field. The mother and baby were missing. They found them later on.” They were injured but had survived.

Lawrence said her family took cover in their storm cellar. “I think a lot of people will build them now,” she added.

A Vilonia resident and the member of a church devastated by the tornado didn’t want to take a break from cleaning debris near the church for an interview.

A woman who was also helping out at the church didn’t want to be named but said it would take years to rebuild Vilonia. She agreed that the important thing was that the community come together to rebuild the town.

If the death toll doesn’t change, Sunday’s tornado is the deadliest single tornado in Arkansas since the March 1, 1997 tornado ranked an F4 killed 15 in Saline and Pulaski counties, according to National Weather Service data.

Area police and firefighters had a roadblock set up Monday afternoon, closing downtown Vilonia. Utility crews, residents and first responders looking for victims were allowed in.

The crews were repairing damage that left many Entergy customers in the dark.

The utility’s outages peaked at 35,722 at 8:15 p.m. Sunday, according to a news release. The outages were down to 10,500 Monday afternoon.

Of those, 9,000 were in the Vilonia/Mayflower area, the release states. More than 300 poles and 50 transmission structures were downed by the tornado.

According to the release, more than 1,000 local and out-of-state workers were repairing the damage.

First Electric Cooperative experienced outages throughout its system because of Sunday’s severe storms, but “we were fortunate that the tornado skirted our system,” spokeswoman Tori Moss said.

At the peak of the outages, more than 8,300 members were without power, she continued.

“Crews worked throughout the night and were able to restore service to all but 200 members by early Monday morning, and the remaining members were restored by early afternoon,” Moss said.

Police, firefighters and insurance agents joined utility crews. A clerk at an area gas station said many of the agents live in Vilonia and have opened up their homes to those who don’t have one anymore.

Cabot, Sherwood and Jacksonville have sent or will send first responders to the tornado-ravaged areas.

The Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department on Hwy. 31 also responded.

Two Jacksonville ambulances with paramedics went to Vilonia. North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville treated two adults and one child for minor injuries caused by the storms.

Volunteer Susie Mitchell, who lives off Hwy. 5 near Cabot, was in Vilonia on Tuesday. She helped Woodmen of the World members serve hot food to anyone who needed a meal.

She said she heard a lot of sad stories. One of them was the teacher of a child who died. The teacher lamented that nothing but a slab marked where her pupil’s house had been.

Mitchell traveled from Hot Springs to volunteer. She said, “It was just so devastating to see. Wow, I can’t believe it does this.”

Mitchell’s son, Tommy, was volunteering alongside her. He was off work Tuesday for his birthday.

Tommy Mitchell lives on Hwy. 107, six or seven miles from Vilonia. He said, “It is pretty devastating. It’s different seeing it in person than on TV and the Internet.”

Sherwood police officers — some who live in the Vilonia area — responded to the disaster on their own, according to a department spokesman.

Sherwood firefighters are scheduled to help out on Thursday.