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Tornado wallops Mena, causes widespread damage

3 dead, 30 injured, buildings flattened

By By Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press

This article was originally published April 10, 2009 at 7:54 a.m. Updated April 10, 2009 at 12:23 p.m.


Workers clear down trees near the Polk County Courthouse in downtown Mena on Friday morning. A tornado tore through Mena late Thursday night damaging or destroying much of downtown.

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Mena reels from twister

Town's damage widespread; at least 3 dead, 30 hurt

Tornado hits Mena

Fierce storms pass through state

— Authorities began a house-to-house search Friday to check on residents after a tornado struck a "direct hit" on this mountain community, killing at least three people, injuring at least 30 others and flattening homes and businesses.

Early Friday, Gov. Mike Beebe declared Howard, Polk and Sevier counties state disaster areas. The governor's office said additional counties may join the list as damage assessments continue.

The Polk County sheriff says the search and rescue operation has concluded, with no further dead or injured being found.

Sheriff Mike Oglesby told The Associated Press just before noon that searchers had combed the area, and that there were no reports of missing persons.

Oglesby says roadblocks will continue at storm-damaged areas. The sheriff says traffic signals are still out and he says he wants to keep sightseers out of a potentially dangerous area.

The twister sliced through the community of 5,700 in the Ouachita Mountains around 8:10 p.m. Thursday. The Polk County sheriff described the sky turning green, while the airport manager said darkness fell quickly as the twister crossed the Oklahoma line 10 miles away.

"Me and the dog ran to the bathroom when we saw it on the TV," said Rick Lanman, the manager of the Mena Airport. "It was here in less than a minute."

Sirens had warned the community for earlier storms north and south of town. When they sounded a fourth time, "experience was telling me that we were in trouble," said Lanman, who said he been through tornadoes before in Oklahoma and Illinois.

Before first light Friday, a convoy of trucks from electric utilities streamed into Mena. Their flashing yellow lights illuminated downed trees and buildings whose roofs and sides had been ripped away. Blue lights from police cruisers lit up debris downtown.

"It just looks like a war zone," Mayor George McKee said.

Prosecutor Tim Williamson said the storm uprooted 100-year-old trees and damaged Civil War-era homes that had been restored. He said the town once looked "pastoral" but added, "It's not anymore."

Williamson said dispatchers at the county courthouse had been trapped inside immediately after the storm. He said the Polk County Jail was "uninhabitable" and efforts were being made to transfer inmates to nearby counties. The local community college lost a roof and two businesses at the city's industrial park were destroyed: R&D Industries, which makes plastic and rubber gaskets for air conditoners, and the Brooks Ice Co. plant, Williamson said.

The violent weather was part of a system that caused damage throughout the South and parts of the Midwest. The National Weather Service said a woman was injured at Shreveport, La., when a tree fell onto her car during a tornado. Twisters also damaged homes east of Vinita and near Muse in Oklahoma and at Crossett in far southern Arkansas, near the Louisiana line.

As the storms moved east, hail and high winds were reported in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Power was out in many parts of the region.

At Mena, one of the victims killed in the storm was found in a collapsed house, one in a Masonic lodge, and another was found in her front yard, said James Reeves, the county's emergency coordinator. The identities of the two women and a man have not been released.

The injured were treated at Mena Medical Center. The devastated downtown area was being protected by National Guard troops dispatched by Gov. Mike Beebe.

A curfew was in effect as emergency crews dealt with ruptured gas lines, downed power lines, fallen trees and heavily damaged buildings.

Lanman, who has lived in Mena since the start of 2008, said his terrier-beagle mix, Milo, was agitated when he arrived home from work Thursday. He kept an eye on the weather as a series of storms crossed into western Arkansas from Oklahoma.

"We had one warning for a storm to the north of us and a warning for a storm to the south. We were on the very tip. We were at the right spot, I turned on the TV and, sure enough, there it was," Lanman said.

The sheriff said five children were in a house that was "basically turned upside down." Deputies were able to reach the children and take them to a hospital, he said.

Richard Bagwal was at home in Mena with his wife, Brenda, and their 13-year-old son, Cody, and said the storm went directly over their home as they huddled under blankets.

"The house was just vibrating and rocking. There was debris flying everywhere. Insulation just filled the house. The wind was unreal," he told ABC's "Good Morning America" by telephone. After the storm ripped off the home's roof, the Bagwal's remained in their home.

"We're kind of like camping out in our house, you know, watching the stars and listening to the wind blow. We're outdoors people. So, you know, we just cleaned out a spot and decided to camp out for the night," he said.






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