Walnut Grove community cleaning debris after tornado

By Tammy Keith Originally Published April 18, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 17, 2013 at 11:38 a.m.
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Tammy Keith

Jamois and Roger Sweatt of the Walnut Grove community in Van Buren County stand in front of a tower of trees that volunteers cleared from the Sweatts’ property after an April 10 tornado. The back of their home received some damage, and outbuildings were destroyed. About a half-dozen homes on Hardy Hill Road, including theirs, were hit by the EF2-rated tornado.

— Roger and Jamois Sweatt watched the threatening sky April 10 from the deck of their home on Hardy Hill Road in Walnut Grove, a community hit hard by a tornado that tore through Van Buren County.

“We saw the black wall, and then right behind it was the white tornado. … You could see the rotation,” Jamois said.

She wasn’t afraid, then.

“I thought it was going to go the same way it went last time when it hit Scotland,” she said of the 2010 twister.

Roger said that after watching it swirl for a few seconds, they took cover.

“We ran in and got in the closet and started hearing stuff hit the house, felt the house shake, and in 15 to 20 seconds, it was over,” he said. “I thought the roof was coming off; it was really loud.”

Jamois said she heard a sound like a train rolling down the tracks: “Thump, thump, thump.”

“I said, ‘Honey, what’s that noise?’ He said, ‘It’s the tornado taking the roof off the house,’” she said.

When it was over, in the dark of the closet, she felt something against her leg.

“I said, ‘Oh, my goodness. Something is on my leg.’ It was my dog — my outside dog,” she said.

“The only thing we can think is that the vacuum of the tornado blew open the doors, and she ran in,” Jamois said.

When the couple, plus Pepper the dog, emerged from the closet, it was raining, and dozens of decades-old pine, oak, gum and hickory trees were down, criss-crossing and blocking the long dirt road to their home.

“You couldn’t see the ground,” Jamois said.

A hickory tree fell on the back of the home, which the couple built in 1983 on 13 acres, Roger said.

Jamois said the tornado destroyed or damaged many of the keepsakes and items that belonged to her mother, who died in May last year.

It destroyed the couple’s carport, blocking in their vehicles. A large crape myrtle tree that survived had to be cut down to clear a path to drive the vehicles out, Roger said.

He said that because so many trees were destroyed, he and his wife can see homes and roads miles away that were formerly hidden.

“I’ve never seen that house before,” he said, pointing up a hill, “or that road.”

“This was all trees,” he said, walking behind his house. He pointed to the stump of an oak tree. “You can tell — it was huge,” he said. “The view’s never going to be the same.”

The tornado, an EF2, according to the National Weather Service, had winds between 111 and 135 mph, and first touched down at 4:24 p.m. Four people were injured in Van Buren County.

Van Buren County Judge Roger Hooper said the tornado damaged 69 residences in the county. Six were basically blown away, and 14 others will likely have to be torn down.

It was raining in Walnut Grove after the tornado passed over, but Jamois said her husband wanted to check on an older neighbor.

“After we climbed over about 10 big trees, we couldn’t,” Jamois said. “We were just exhausted. Later, we heard voices over there, and we knew he was OK.”

Roger was just a few days away from planting his crops, which include onions and watermelons. He’s especially known for his tomatoes, which he sells in several venues and markets, as well as from his home.

The greenhouse and “selling shed” were destroyed, along with a mobile home where his hired hands live, Roger said.

“No local tomatoes at the market this year,” he said.

A stack of trees towering at least 30 feet high was a testimony to the havoc the storm wrought.

The couple and their daughter, Stephanie Harris of Conway, praised the volunteers who cleared and stacked the trees.

Jamois said Walnut Grove residents and responders came to help, as well as employees from the Clinton School District, where she works as the elementary-school cafeteria manager.

“We’ve had a great crew of people here,” Roger said.

In addition to local volunteers, the Sweatts said a group led by Sid Langley of Searcy brought in equipment to clear their land.

Langley, the owner of Langley Excavating, said his nondenominational group of 10 men is the Jesus Excavating Team.

He said most of the men, like himself, are independent owners who can leave on a moment’s notice for a disaster.

“We will not go unless somebody calls us,” he said, and emergency-management officials in Van Buren County did.

Langley said he and two other team members got to Walnut Grove between 4 and 5 p.m. Friday and left about 5 p.m. Sunday.

He said they went to that community because he heard the focus was on Botkinburg, yet Walnut Grove was hit harder.

“Let’s put it like this; Botkinburg was a walk in the park compared to Walnut Grove,” he said.

“The timber was huge [in Walnut Grove]; it was laying everywhere, criss-crossed. That’s where we try to target, because of our machines and ability to do what we do,” he said. “We handle everything that nobody else will do.”

He said they do it for free and don’t seek the limelight.

They left the Sweatts a reminder of their trip — a cross carved from the stump of a gum tree.

“We’re true Christians — they didn’t have to ask,” Jamois said.

Langley said it’s an Ebenezer, which comes from the Book of Samuel in the Bible, and “it’s a place of remembrance,” he said.

Jamois said, “This is a gum tree, so that means this is going to last.”

Just up from the Sweatts’ home on Arkansas 95 that afternoon, pine trees were being plucked like candles on a birthday cake from 77-year-old Gus Anglin’s yard.

When the storm hit, he was staying with his daughter, Abbie McMahan, at her home in Green Forest to travel to Fayetteville for treatment of bone cancer.

McMahan said Anglin’s roof was damaged, and rain ruined some of his furniture.

“The house has to be all redone,” she said.

She said all the news reports had focused on Botkinburg, which also was hit, “but these poor people are just devastated up here.”

Anglin said the rent house he owns next door was “blown off the frame” and heavily damaged. He was happy that some furniture he has in storage wasn’t hurt.

“I love antiques,” he said.

McMahan; her brother, Russell Anglin of Sheridan; and other relatives were cleaning debris in the elder Anglin’s yard.

Russell and his brother-in-law had covered the roof with tarps.

“It was like a weird thing,” Russell said. “[The trees] all fell in different directions so it wouldn’t hit the house.”

Russell, who teaches in the Sheridan School District, said volunteers and emergency responders cut through downed trees to make a path to his father’s house.

“Before I knew it was this bad, I thought I’d bring a chain saw,” he said. “A neighbor said, ‘You can’t get to his house.’”

Gus sat on a bench Sunday afternoon with piles of pine trees, he estimated 20, stacked behind him. He was eating a hot dog for lunch, and one of his baby goats slept in a nearby kennel on the ground.

A former Van Buren County sheriff, he praised the volunteers, who came with tractors and equipment to clear trees.

“People sure have been good,” he said.

His daughter agreed.

“People have been so good,” she said.

The Sweatts said on Sunday that other than Jamois going to church that morning, they hadn’t left their property.

“It hasn’t sunk in,” Jamois said, looking around at the carnage. “Oh, it’s devastating to walk out your front door and see nothing but trees, you know?”

She recalled that Roger, her husband of 35 years, walked out the front door the day after the tornado and said, “I can’t do this by myself.”

Jamois started to cry, but it didn’t last long.

She and her husband walked over to the stack of trees volunteers had cleared, and they held hands.

“We’re a team,” she said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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