Saturday, May 10, 2014

TOP STORY >> Feelings hurt after base visit

Leader staff writer

Local mayors weren’t invited to greet President Barack Obama when he landed at Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville on Wednesday to hop aboard the Marine One helicopter that brought him to devastated Vilonia.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) invited the president to tour the damage there caused by the April 27 EF4 tornado, which sported winds between 166-200 mph and a 42-mile track.

The storm killed 16 people and affected more than 800 homes.

And FEMA officials have already approved $1.6 million in assistance, spokesman Daniel Martinez said.

The senator, along with Gov. Mike Beebe, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), 19th Airlift Wing Commander Col. Patrick Rhatigan and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, met Air Force One on the flight line.

Jacksonville Alderman James Bolden told The Leader he was confused by Stodola’s presence. “That just isn’t right,” he said, noting that the base is not in Little Rock.

The alderman said he was told that the senator forgot to include Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher on the list of dignitaries who were to greet the president.

Bolden continued, “I think it was a slap in Jacksonville’s face by Mark Pryor’s office.”

He said he thought Pryor “snubbed” the city because the senator cares more about Little Rock votes than he does about Jacksonville votes.

Although Jacksonville was not affected by the deadly tornado, the city sent two ambulances to Vilonia during the search and rescue effort.

Nevertheless, Fletcher said, “We appreciate the president coming and reaching out and trying to, as president, encourage and help give some hope to those who lost so much...It seemed like it lifted quite a few people’s spirits out there.”

Fletcher said he thought politics took a back road to the visit’s focus. “It’s sad it takes a tragedy to do that,” he noted.

Fletcher also recalled greeting First Lady Michelle Obama two years ago, when she toured the new Hercules dining facility on the base and praised the nutritious food served there.

“I had the privilege of meeting the prettiest of the Obamas,” the mayor joked.

Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman and Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert were also among those who weren’t invited to meet the president.

Both said they understood that their cities weren’t involved in why Obama was here.

Hillman told The Leader, “I felt like that was for those communities. I would have assumed those were the mayors that would be invited.”

About the statement Obama read in Vilonia, the mayor said, “It was what I would have expected and hoped for, that the area would be able to receive federal funds…I felt like the focus should have been (and was) on those communities.”

Cypert agreed. “I think it was a positive thing to show support at a federal level.”

He noted, “It didn’t involve Cabot…I didn’t need an invitation and didn’t expect to get one.”

Obama met with victims, city officials and emergency personnel on his 20-minute tour of Vilonia. It was his first visit to Arkansas since being elected in 2008.

“When something happens like this to a community it happens to all of us,” he said. “The folks here are tough, and they look out for each other.”

He pointed out that this is the second time in three years Vilonia residents have experienced more than one kind of loss. An April 2011 tornado killed four people.

The recent tornado took a similar path, striking many of the houses that were hit in 2011 and had been rebuilt.

Obama continued, “I could not be more impressed by the spirit of the community that’s here. This is a testament to the strength of the community, the state of Arkansas and America.”

The president also said there would be federal help available for the city that lost 85 percent of its sales tax revenue when most businesses along Main Street were obliterated by the tornado.

Faulkner County was declared a disaster area two days after the tornado swept through it.

It also touched down in El Paso in White County, where Paula Blakemore was killed.

White County was declared a disaster area on Monday, along with Pulaski and Randolph counties.

There are two disaster recovery centers where people can register for assistance and get information from several sources. They are at 600 Hwy. 365 in Mayflower and at 300 Geneva Drive in Pocahontas.

Mobile units are at First Assembly of God Church at 851 Main St. in Vilonia, 607 Hwy. 365 in Mayflower, First Baptist Church at 1206 Main St. in Vilonia, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church at 27025 Kanis Road in Little Rock and 4103 Hwy. 36 West in Searcy. Victims can also register by calling 501-621-3362 or online.

FEMA spokesman Dan Martinez said 1,059 had registered as of Thursday.