Friday, March 25, 2016

TOPS STORY >> 40 years after the storm

Special to The Leader

The news quickly dominated radio and television stations — a tornado had hit the business area of Cabot a little after 3 p.m., and there were reports of deaths and destruction along the nine-mile swath ripped by the twister.

Soon, calls came into now-Mayor Bill Cypert’s Blue Cross Blue Shield office in Little Rock telling him about the storm, but he didn’t hang around to field more calls. Instead, Cypert, who had moved to Cabot the year before, drove to his home on Mount Carmel Road.

It was March 29, 1976, and — as with events such as 9/11 — most Cabot residents who lived through the storm remember where they were and what they were doing that day. It will have been 40 years Tuesday.

It seems impossible, but from the twisted wreckage of that disaster the seeds of today’s vibrant downtown were planted.


Cabot was settled in 1873 but didn’t grow much until folks from Little Rock and the military personnel stationed at nearby Little Rock Air Force Base started moving in.

Just prior to 1970, the population had nearly doubled to 2,900, and continued to grow through the rest of the decade to about 4,800. More people meant more a growth in retail and other services, Cypert says.

As Cypert drove into town that afternoon, he was stunned by the damage.

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.

National Weather Service Meteorologist John Robinson, now retired, rem-embers it well. It was his first tornado as a professional weatherman and the F3 storm left five people dead and 64 injured, with many hospitalized.

While the tornado sirens in Cabot sounded the alarm, National Weather Service Meteorologist Willie Gilmore says today’s information is much more accurate and there are multiple ways for people to receive information. In the 1970s, radio, television and city sirens were all they had, he says.

According a news report by Bob Steel on the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History website, the tornado started about five miles southwest of Cabot, and it grew to about the length of four football fields, carving a swath about nine miles long.

After Cypert knew that his family was safe — his young

After assured that his family was safe, his young daughter had been at school but she was home by the time he arrive, Cypert headed to the town’s business area.

In an approximately 15-block business area—part would later be rebuilt after the storm as a small downtown—every business was destroyed or heavily damaged, said Cabot Mayor Willie Ray as part of the Pryor Center oral history report.

It left about 6,000 without power, says Cypert. Also, he adds it was in the days before cell phones and because of the power outage, most homes were without phone service.

“It made communication difficult,” he says.

Twenty-two commercial establishments outside the business area sustained major damage.

Cypert says, “The state pulled out all the stops,” in order to help the small town.

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

Business district bruised

Grocer and hardware merchant Jack Lowman, then owner of Lowman and Lowman, remembers that afternoon well. He started closing up shop as the sirens sounded. His wife, Pat, was already on her way to the high school where her daughter Jacque was a student.

Pat Lowman also has crystal-clear memories of that day, “They already had kids on the bus but they had to get them off and back into the school.”

She ducked in the school’s office with her daughter, but instead of a direct hit on the school, the tornado lifted as it roared overhead.

The school and the possibly 3,000 kids were safe.

Suzanne Baldwin, 14 in 1976, remembers that she didn’t go to school that day, but from her home in Ward she watched as the tornado passed.

Candy Miller of Cabot was right in the middle of it as a student at Cabot Elementary School and remembers the events vividly.

“It was a little after 3 [p.m.] and I thought it was a drill…We sat with our books over our heads, our backs against the wall [of the school’s hallway]. At first it was quiet and raining hard,” she recalls.

Outside, already kids had been loaded on the bus but the school’s staff quickly moved all the kids back inside.

Miller says she wasn’t scared but remembers she heard it and recalls the classroom curtains being sucked upward to the ceiling.

Cypert says, “Fortunately, the tornado jumped the school. If not, it would have been tragic,” he says.

Like Miller, his daughter Tammy, then in second grade, was at the elementary school.

No child injured

“Not a single child was injured and they [the school staff] did a great job of keeping track of all the kids and keeping them safe,” he says.

Lowman had remained at the store for a few minutes after his wife left, but soon headed in the direction of the school.

Within a few minutes, the tornado overtook Lowman and turned his truck around, and he recalls, “Houses were flying over my truck…It was scary.”

He admits he was lucky.

When he returned to his business on Front Street, he was shocked, and he says, “In the streets, there were people everywhere.”

The front of Lowman’s building was heavily damaged—later, the state health department made him throw all the food out.

Next door at the Buffalo Insurance Agency, four people were killed, including one child, and one person was buried alive under the rubble of the two-story building.

Everyone helped dig him out, Lowman remembers.

The agency rebuilt and is today located at 122 N. First St.

Without skipping many beats, Lowman moved his hardware business a few blocks away for about three months while his place underwent a redo.

Both Lowman and Cypert say much of the town’s rescue and recovery was because of the quick actions of then Cabot Mayor Willie Ray.

Lowman says, “He did an excellent job.”

Cypert, the town’s future mayor remembers, “I was shocked at the destruction I saw…I will never forget that the sun came out, making the damage more vivid, more real. It was indescribable.”

Like so many others, he did what he could to assist people.

Cypert also commends Ray, saying, “The mayor did a tremendous job and worked around the clock for days. He was a major calming factor and pulled out all the stops, pulling in country and state resources.”

However, Ray’s work didn’t stop with the disaster that left the town’s reeling and in shock for weeks.

Cypert says it’s impossible to adequately paint a picture of the traumatic events with words.

Fast forward 40 years

As with any tragedy, Lowman says the community came together and ultimately the tornado made Cabot stronger and better.

He feels Ray is largely responsible for the rebuilding of the business area, as well as the creation of a town square, and not only did the city survive, but Lowman says it thrived in the years following the tornado.

According to Cabot history, “During the rebuilding of the city, it was decided to build a new city hall, municipal courtroom, library (since relocated), and police station on the site of the debris-filled dividing point between the east and west sections of Main Street, creating City Plaza.”

It goes on to say that a new health clinic (now in another location) was built behind city hall” to help maintain the vitality of the older part of the city, and Centennial Bank built a branch that looks on the outside like the original Bank of Cabot, history accounts state. As well, “Highway 89, which follows the same path as West Main Street in Cabot, was redirected around City Plaza along one block of Second Street, to continue its path along Pine Street just south of the Cabot High School campus.”

Numerous subdivisions have sprung up and since the tornado, not only has Cabot grown in population and size; it has big-box stores and boutiques, and large grocery stores and family entertainment like the bowling alley and a movie theater.

According to the latest census numbers, Cabot’s population is now nearly 24,000, and the school district 2016 enrollment is at about 10,000.

While some towns never recover, there are success stories. Arkansas towns have experienced growth after a major tornado, including Dumas and Arkadelphia and nearby Vilonia, which suffered tornadoes in 2011 and 2014.

Vilonia déjà vu

A number of agencies came together to help with the revitalization of the Vilonia, including volunteers and churches from around the state, and organizations like Habitat for Humanity. There’s money for schools, a playground and more.

Marty Knight, Knight Business Solutions owner and consultant, and until recently a resident of Vilonia, spearheaded a grassroots rebuilding organization after the tornadoes.

The town had grown from about 700 since the 1970s to about 4,000 when the first twister hit.

“It’s a real challenge,” Knight says about bringing various groups together. One group might remember how things were and want to duplicate that, while new residents see a different future for the town.

The Rebuild Vilonia Committee talked with other cities that had experienced similar tornadoes and benefited from what they learned during their rebuild.

Despite the hard work involved, he says like Cabot, “It’s possible for a city to turn tragedy into opportunity.”

Comeback Celebration

Two years after the storm, Cabot Mayor Ray, who served as mayor for 19 years, put together the “We’re Back—Cabot” festival.

Pat and Jack Lowman attended the first festival that was held in the downtown area. The celebration was needed after the terrible events, Jack Lowman remembers.

Now simply known as CabotFest, the tradition continues with recent attendance recording topping 30,000 visitors, says Candy Miller, who these days works at the Cabot Chamber of Commerce.

The three-day festival has grown to include live entertainments, rides, a carnival and food vendors, and she says the cricket-spitting contest is a big draw.

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

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

He goes on to say that most of the town’s newcomers probably have little idea of the tornado, its destruction and the town’s eventual rebirth from the debris that covered the city.

“Residents paid a heavy price, there was death and financial hardships but the city pulled together and supported each other. It rebuilt and rebounded and the community spirit we see in the town today had its roots in the tornado.”