Past experiences keep people prepared for the future

By Wayne Bryan Published March 18, 2012 at 2:44 a.m.
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— Being in the path of a tornado has often been described by people as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but records show that in Arkansas, the chance to encounter several tornadoes in a lifetime is quite possible.

A recent study of the records found that every county in the state has encountered twisters multiple times in the last 50 years.

So having gone through the experience of a tornado, are people more likely to be more prepared for the next one? The answer is a strong “maybe.”

“Personally, I do not watch the weather or think about storms more than I did,” said the Rev. Tim Forest, pastor of Walnut Valley Baptist Church. “But I would guess that two out of every three members of my congregation are keeping a close eye on the weather nowadays.”

Forest’s church, just outside Hot Springs Village, was almost destroyed on April 25, 2011, when a tornado blew through the church campus on Arkansas 7. The storm demolished the church’s multipurpose building and educational building, along with the homes of the pastor and youth pastor, and seriously damaged the church sanctuary.

The Walnut Valley church has been rebuilding since soon after that Monday-night storm almost a year ago. Construction and repairs are now almost complete, Forest said.

After the storm, Forest said he wanted to hold services back at the church campus by Christmas and he did, holding a Sunday, Christmas Day service in the reconstructed sanctuary. He said all the work at the church should be finished by Easter.

The two homes now include safe rooms as shelters against future storms. While Foster said a safe room that would hold a congregation of 300 or more was not financially possible, he said areas of the church’s building have been built as designated shelters. Forest, his family and others endured the storm at the church.

“We had just finished a program with about 60 children and the last of them had left about 10 minutes before the tornado hit,” Forest said in an earlier interview. “There were 14 of us there. We went into an interior hallway together and sat their and prayed for protection.”

WARNING CALLS

Moments after the tornado hit the church, the gated community of Hot Springs Village was smashed by the April 25 storm.

The biggest damage came from trees knocked over and torn up by the twister. Days after the storm, Scott Randall, general manager of the community, said 166 homes received “significant damage” in the storm, along with nine commercial properties and two churches.

Randall added that more homes would be added to that list into the summer as property owners who live around the county and the world returned to their homes in the Village.

The community’s golf courses were also badly damaged, and roads were blocked by fallen trees.

Today, the community has taken some steps to warn its residents of threatening weather faster, Hot Springs Village Police Chief A.L. Cornett said.

“We have instituted an emergency warning system called One Call,” the chief said. “It is a reverse 911 system.”

Cornett said the system can be used to instantly call the residents of one street, a neighborhood or the entire community in case of an emergency.

“It is controlled from our offices, and it can actively call everyone, or it can be zeroed in to notify just the area under the alert,” he said. “It is run from our dispatch office.

Saline County officials had prepared to place a tornado siren in the eastern section of the Village that is in both Saline and Garland counties.

“But we heard concern from some folks,” Cornett said. “So that plan is in abeyance until we can study what kind of warning signal would be used and where it would be placed.”

The police chief also said he knows many residents have purchased radios that sound alerts if a warning is issued in the area.

“We have been encouraging people to do that,” Cornett said.

WEATHER WATCH

Forest said his wife keeps an eye on the weather all the time.

“But she was a weather bunny to begin with,” Forest said. “This was the third time her home was hit by a tornado. Two times, a tornado hit her home when she was a kid in northeast Arkansas.”

Forest said that while he doesn’t share the concerns of others who now often follow forecasts, looking for the next storm, he understands the logic behind it.

“If you have been bit by a dog, you are cautious around dogs,” he said. “Dark clouds and storm warnings get people’s attention.

Another weather watcher is Steve Fellers, media relations coordinator for Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.

On March 1, 1997, Fellers was editor of the local newspaper when one of the most destructive tornadoes in Arkansas history hit the community.

“I was at the office before it hit, and when the warnings came, I got a camera and went out to follow its path,” Fellers said. “I had seen the tornado that hit Camden in 1979 when I was in high school. It destroyed the elementary school and flattened a shopping center.”

According to records from the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Little Rock, 16 tornados were spawned by the storms in Arkansas that day. The worst was an F4-rated tornado tracked along Interstate 30 from south of Arkadelphia to Little Rock.

“One tornado tracked from two miles northeast of Hope through Arkadelphia to four miles east of Malvern,” the weather service report states. “The track length was 67 miles! Considerable damage was noted in Arkadelphia and Donaldson. Six people were killed in and around Arkadelphia.

“The storm blew across I-30 and cut a path through Arkadelphia,” Fellers recalled. “The campuses of the two universities were not touched, but it leveled several businesses and damaged the [Clark County] Courthouse.

Fellers admits he was reckless in following the storm, as it cut over the interstate, blowing vehicles off the road. He said one car was blown into trees, and he arrived to see the driver become the first fatality of the storm.

He photographed the damage caused by the storm. Those pictures would become part of a book about the tornado and its aftermath in Arkadelphia and how the city rebuilt.

“It made me interested in following the weather,” Fellers said, “but then, I was already interested to begin with.”

On his desk at HSU, he has extra computer monitors to follow Weather Bug, one major weather-forecasting and news website. Another includes a weather cam on campus that is sometimes used by Little Rock television stations to follow the weather in Arkadelphia.

“On the cam, you can see the quad at Henderson and the western sky,” Fellers said.

The 1997 storm came from the west and south.

In addition, Fellers said, he has several weather apps on his smart phone to keep him tuned to the weather when he is away from his office.

“One of them sounds a very scary tone if a severe thunderstorm warning or a tornado warning is issued,” he said.

“I am not one to panic when I see a dark cloud, but I have seen what they can do.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or

wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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