Tuesday, March 29, 2016

EDITORIAL >> 40 years after deadly disaster

A devastating tornado destroyed much of Cabot 40 years ago yesterday. The F3 twister ripped through town a little after 3 p.m. March 29, 1976.

In her dramatic account in The Leader on Saturday, freelance writer Deborah Horn explained how the twisted wreckage of that disaster planted the seeds of rapid population growth, a modern school district, a vibrant downtown and much more.

The tornado started about five miles southwest of Cabot and grew to about the length of four football fields, carving a swath about nine miles long.

The storm left five people dead and 64 injured, with many hospitalized. The tornado destroyed much of the business area before the twister moved on, leaving locals stunned and worried about their town’s future.

In the days following the tornado, the Red Cross estimated that the tornado had destroyed 49 mobile homes, 28 homes and 24 apartment units. It significantly damaged another 12 mobile homes, 38 homes and 36 apartments. About 6,000 people were without power.

The state’s emergency office estimated that the damage reached about $7 million, and Cabot was declared a natural disaster area. Area law enforcement, military and other agencies quickly responded, and even the Arkansas Highway Department brought in heavy equipment to help with the cleanup.

Two years after the storm, Cabot Mayor Willie Ray, who served as mayor for 19 years, put together the “We’re Back—Cabot” festival. Now simply known as CabotFest, the tradition continues with recent attendance recording topping 30,000 visitors. The three-day festival has grown to include live entertainment, rides, a carnival, food vendors and a cricket-spitting contest.

This year’s CabotFest will be held Oct. 6-8.

Mayor Bill Cypert recalls, “The original goal was to celebrate the city’s recovery…To say we are not dead but alive and thriving.”

Cabot is indeed thriving. At the end of the 1960s, the population had nearly doubled to 2,900 and continued to grow through the 1970s to about 4,800. More people meant more retail and other services.

According to the latest census numbers, Cabot’s population is now over 25,000, and the school district’s 2016 enrollment is at about 10,000.

Thank you, Mayor Cypert, for reminding us how far Cabot has come in four decades and for honoring the memory of Mayor Ray, who led his city out from under the rubble and toward a better future that he could hardly have imagined in 1976. More than 25,000 souls are glad that they have come this far.