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‘The city looks different’

Vilonia makes progress two years after tornado

By Tammy Keith

This article was originally published April 25, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. Updated April 24, 2013 at 10:06 a.m.

gov-mike-beebe-comforts-homeowner-lou-baker-following-a-killer-tornado-that-struck-the-vilonia-area-on-april-25-2011-the-twister-claimed-five-lives-destroyed-several-homes-and-marred-much-of-the-landscape-in-its-path-now-two-years-later-both-physical-and-emotional-signs-of-the-storm-still-remain

Gov. Mike Beebe comforts homeowner Lou Baker following a killer tornado that struck the Vilonia area on April 25, 2011. The twister claimed five lives, destroyed several homes and marred much of the landscape in its path. Now, two years later, both physical and emotional signs of the storm still remain.

Mayor James Firestone said that in the two years since a deadly tornado tore through Vilonia, “we’ve come along really well.”

Today is the two-year anniversary of the tornado that killed five people, destroyed homes and rearranged the landscape.

“There’s still signs of the storm there and always will be, but most stuff’s been cleaned up,” Firestone said.

“East of Quail Hollow [subdivision], the wooded area that was so pretty, it just looks like a war zone there now. Trees are still mangled,” Firestone said.

Mary Wells, a retired Conway elementary-school principal, and her husband, Gene, own that land. They’ve lived there since about 1962, she said. One of their sons and a daughter live nearby.

“We lost 52 acres of trees between us and our son,” she said. “It was a typical, Southern, deciduous forest. We had some huge white oaks.”

“It takes a while to repair the damage.

“Last summer, we got the holes filled in the backyard from where the big trees were. They just came out of the ground with a 6-foot-high root and left holes.

“There are just piles of logs that need burning.”

It was too dry last summer to burn the debris, she said.

Wells said her husband told someone they are on a “five-year plan” of cleaning up the trees.

On April 25, 2011, the night of the tornado, the Wellses took cover in their storm cellar with their daughter-in-law, Storme Wells, and her daughter, their granddaughter, Addie Wells.

“We had a working wind mill, and it fell on the storm cellar and trapped us there for about three hours,” Mary said.

Storme, 48, (who realizes the irony of her name, but not why her mother chose it) said it was a frantic night.

“Something hit the door, and I had this sinking feeling we were stuck in there,” Storme said.

Storme said her son-in-law, Gary Carden, got a chain saw and walked three miles to rescue them.

Mary said a tree fell on the metal roof of their home, but it didn’t do any damage, and they lost a few outbuildings.

The home of Storme and her husband, Tommy, had its roof blown off. Storme said of Addie, who lived in a mobile home near them, “It got her whole house.”

“We had to get a new roof and some new windows and some carpet, and new beds, because glass was just all over the bedrooms,” Storme said.

“We had a yard full [of downed trees], and then we had 20 acres of our own property that was total woods, and now it’s not.

“They were huge, huge,” she said of the trees.

Their 1,000-foot-long driveway was lined with trees, all destroyed.

Storme said she can’t believe it has been two years since the tornado.

“I can’t; I can’t. We were talking about that the other day,” she said.

Storme said they’ve cleaned up the trees around their home, but the other property still has downed trees “just in long rows.”

The mayor said that although “buildings have been built back, for the most part, some never will be. We’re managing to move on from it.”

The city’s ballpark was damaged to the tune of about $125,000, but it has been restored.

New light poles were purchased, and repairs were made with donations, insurance, in-kind donations and city funds.

Many homes in Quail Hollow subdivision suffered severe damage. Black Oak Ranch Estates, a subdivision south of U.S. 64 that has a Conway address but is in the Vilonia School District, bore the brunt of the tornado’s power.

Four of the residents were killed during the tornado, and a fifth had a heart attack at a roadblock, which Faulkner County Coroner Patrick Moore ruled as a tornado death.

Preston Scroggin of Vilonia was county judge when the tornado hit, and it damaged his family farm.

“We still have scars on our farm,” he said. “We lost 10 head of cattle, and I think five or six barns. My house had trees on it, and it had damage. We had a lot of fence down. We spent until last fall, actually, still cleaning up trees. I think we put 1,600 hours on one bulldozer.

“It took us a year, probably, to get all the sheet metal and scrap iron picked up.”

“The biggest thing is the amount of trees that are gone,” he said of the city. “A lot of 100-plus-year-old trees are no longer there. That’s hard to look at every day, but we’ve got it cleaned up and are trying to get it back to normal. It was quite an adventure for everybody.”

Vilonia has come back

stronger than ever, Scroggin said.

“The city’s actually cleaner,” he said, laughing. “They’ve come in and cleaned a lot of that debris up, and the city looks different now.”

Firestone and other residents spent some nervous minutes earlier this month when tornadoes touched down in the state, including one that destroyed a church and homes in nearby Van Buren County.

The mayor said he has added to his home a sun room, which includes a safe room, but it isn’t ready.

He said his daughter Tina McHenry, whose home the tornado damaged, installed a storm shelter in her garage.

Firestone said a woman who contacted him wants to dedicate a book to people who died in the tornado.

Benton author Lynn Richardson is writing her second book, The Far Side of the Orchard, which she plans to dedicate to the five victims: Charles Austin Mitchell, Craig D. Garvin, Mary Katherine Talley, David Robert Talley and Virgil Steed.

Although it’s fiction, the book opens with the Vilonia tornado, and she said she will use photos from the city.

“I just choose a place in Arkansas, and I just kind of make a story out of it,” said Richardson, 61, who is self-published.

“This particular one does start out on a serious note, and it does start out with the Vilonia tornado,” Richardson said. “Because it started with a real event and people did lose lives, I felt it was appropriate to dedicate it to them.

“My family survives, and the story unfolds as they move on with their lives and get caught up in other life experiences, so the story does move on past the tornado event and goes in another direction. It’s actually a very uplifting, tender story about picking up the pieces, determination and the value of family.”

It may be fiction, but the story is close to the truth for many Vilonia residents.

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

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