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Severe weather does not destroy communities’ spirit

By Tammy Keith

This article was published March 2, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.


A slab is the only thing left of a historical building in Walnut Grove after an April 10 tornado tore through the community last year. The 1915 wooden building housed the first automobile dealership in Van Buren County, Fire Chief Royce Johnson said, and the building was being used for storage when it was destroyed.

The warning siren in Walnut Grove sounded on April 10 last year — up until the tornado hit it.

An EF2-rated tornado blew through Van Buren County, hitting homes, destroying a church and a fire station, and injuring four people.

The twister had winds between 111 and 135 mph, according to the National Weather Service, and first touched down at 4:24 p.m.

The tornado damaged the Walnut Grove Volunteer Fire Department station beyond repair, and the metal building was rebuilt, Walnut Grove Fire Chief Royce Johnson said.

“We had just put in a tornado siren and got it up and running about three weeks before the tornado,” Johnson said. “We played it until the tornado hit it.

“It was new, and everybody said, ‘Boy, it made a pitiful sound when it went out.’”

He said the tornado bent the siren pole and damaged the power lines to it.

“We had that siren back online in about three days after the tornado. We felt like we needed that thing again real soon,” he said.

“We’re hoping that siren is what kept people safer,” Johnson said of the Walnut Grove residents. “We didn’t have any injuries. They took shelter. They were in their cellars; they were in safe places in their homes.”

Johnson; his wife, Sharon; and Capt. Daniel Silva, a volunteer firefighter, crawled for more than seven hours through downed trees on Hardy Hill Road to check on homeowners.

“We felt that we needed to check on everybody and see them face to face,” Johnson said. “We got our hiking boots on and went and checked on everybody, and it took about seven hours. That’s what we do.”

Van Buren County Judge Roger Hooper said following last year’s tornado that 69 homes were hit, including six that were “totally destroyed,” 29 that had roof damage or “part of the house wasn’t there,” 14 that will likely have to be torn down and 20 with shingles or siding missing, or “damage that needs repairs.”

Hooper said some people didn’t rebuild, “but I’d say 90 percent of the people rebuilt.”

“Botkinburg, for the general area right there, … lost the church, several houses out there,” he said. “Out at Walnut Grove, it was more concentrated.”

Walnut Grove was “clobbered” by the tornado, Johnson said.

In addition to decades-old trees being uprooted and homes damaged, a “landmark” building in Walnut Grove was destroyed, Johnson said.

The 1915 wooden building that sat on a hill above the fire station served as Star Automobile Dealership, the first one in the county, he said. It also was a blacksmith shop and mechanic’s business. The owners were using the building for storage at the time of the tornado, he said.

“We hated losing that,” Johnson said. “You can still tell a tornado went through here.”

Hooper said a nine-member Van Buren County Long-Term Recovery Committee formed in 2008 to help people. It primarily includes ministers and justices of the peace, he said.

David Cook, a member of the committee, said many people were displaced by the tornadoes.

Cook said he was minister of the Choctaw Church of Christ when he got on the committee, but he now operates a nonprofit organization, Project Surge, which helps low-income families find housing or low-income housing.

The long-term recovery committee has a similar goal.

“We work with families on a case-by-case basis to get them into a more long-term living [arrangement]. We had a list and prioritized” following the 2013 tornado, Cook said. “The elderly were first, then families with children and others. It was primarily people who had no insurance or the underinsured.

“In 2008, we helped well over 100 families, from tree cleanup to helping people with roofs.”

The 2013 tornado hit the northern part of the county, he said.

“It hit people who were in dire poverty. … Most of them did not have insurance,” he said. “We helped 11 families with long-term shelters; we bought five mobile homes and moved them and got them set up.”

Money to pay for the work came from a grant and donations.

“It just showed up,” Cook said. “The United Methodist Church … gave us a big grant through their organization; community members donated. We helped 27 families who did not have insurance of the 52 who were hit.

“We did things like tree removal, cleanup — we did roof a house; that was one thing we were able to do. Our big project, which is almost finished, is we built a house from the ground up,” Cook said.

“[The Van Buren County] Long-Term Recovery Committee, we are active in disasters, so if a tornado or ice storm comes, we activate,” he said.

“We’ve been very, very busy. We hope to be dormant this spring,” Cook said.


In Botkinburg, the most visible damage was to Botkinburg Foursquare Church, 7054 U.S. 65 N.

The original church, a 10-year-old, two-story metal church, was mangled in the tornado in April last year, about 1 1/2 hours before Wednesday-night services were scheduled.

Members gathered under a tent in the church parking lot under a clear blue sky on a Sunday four days after the tornado, and pastor Ester Bass vowed to rebuild.

The new church is one level and a little bit larger, he said, particularly the fellowship hall.

Bass said the first church services in the sanctuary were held Feb. 23.

“Everything was just really great,” he said. “It’s absolutely beautiful; it’s just a blessing to be there.”

He said a “grand opening” for the church will be held April 6, “as close to the 10th, when the tornado was, as possible.” Sunday School is at 10 a.m., services at 11.

“We’ll just have services, and I may have some special singing that morning,” he said.

Bass said a church dedication will be held in May.

Hooper said the area has had three natural disasters in the past two years — the tornado, a flood in May, and the ice and snow storm in December.

“We continue to rebuild. … We’re resilient,” he said.


A tornado ripped through Vilonia on April 25, 2011, killing five people, uprooting decades-old trees in its path and rearranging the landscape.

Four of the people lived south of U.S. 64 in Black Oak Ranch Estates, which has a Conway address but is in the Vilonia School District. The fifth person had a heart attack at a roadblock while surveying storm damage. His death was ruled a tornado death by Faulkner County Coroner Patrick F. Moore.

The cleanup cost $528,000, which after state and Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, cost the city $66,000.

More than 2,100 loads of debris were dumped into a staging area.

“We got everything cleaned up in pretty short order,” Mayor James Firestone said.

“Our recovery has gone extremely well, considering all the damage we had done,” he said. “It’s hard to say we’re back to 100 percent, but we’re very close.”

An Arbor Day celebration in 2013 was successful in its effort to replenish trees, he said.

“The U.S. Forest Service donated a bunch of trees — we had a big turnout for that,” Firestone said. “A gentleman from the forest service said we had one of the best turnouts he’d ever seen.

“Of course, it will take a long time to replace what we lost, but at least it’s an effort, and we’re heading in the right direction.”

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

Vilonia Assistant Fire Chief K.C. Williams said he has written a grant seeking discretionary funds from senators and representatives to help update the city’s tornado-siren warning system.

“It stays in somewhat of a state of disrepair,” he said. “It works usually, but with our growing population, there’s a percentage that it doesn’t cover. We’re asking for new sirens in addition to what we have.”

Williams said the city has four towers with sirens on them, but the sirens are “small.”

“One is as old as the town — it was invented before air,” he said.

Although he doesn’t know if those discretionary funds will materialize, Williams said the city received a $37,500 General Improvement Fund grant from the Arkansas Department of Rural Services.

“It’s going toward our training facility that is under construction, adding on more bays for fire,” he said.

Williams said the city’s fire department is getting prepared for whatever might come.

“The leadership of the department just finished a FEMA course on wide-area search and rescue, which you would do in a tornado,” Williams said.

He said he and Vilonia Fire Chief Keith Hillman spent all day Feb. 20 getting documentation in place in case of a natural disaster, “so we can activate county, state and federal support faster than we did last time and more efficiently,” Williams said. “There are lots of forms that FEMA requires that you fill out in order to take advantage of some of the assets they have available.

”We will spend the next week or so preparing what we’re calling an emergency disaster box preplan if we have a major flood, a tornado or, heaven forbid, the earthquake.”

The information also could be used to assist another community in a disaster.

“You open up the box, and it has everything in it you need to start effecting the response from an organization — search and rescue, all of that type of stuff. It’s to help us be better organized,” he said.

“We had a plan, but it was never written down. As I like to say, a plan that isn’t written down is an idea. Whoever’s in charge, they have instructions in time of a stressful situation. This is just something we’re doing to prepare for future events,” Williams said.

“As a department, we’ve also over the last year or two been involved in several classes in incident management. We’ve been to different classes like on high- and low-angle rope rescue, confined-space rescue, core skills to safely get someone out of harm’s way,” he said.

“We also have purchased and are working on putting together a small, highly trained rescue team with a trailer. All of this is to help us respond to and mitigate any kind of disaster we may have.

“In the event that we or one of our neighbors have something, we’re ready to go now.”


Feb. 5 was the sixth anniversary of a 2008 tornado that hit the city, demolishing the boat factory and killing one employee.

“It’s pretty much back to normal, except for all the trees that we lost and the scenery coming down the hill into Clinton on U.S. 65. It looks different than it used to be,” Clinton Mayor Roger Rorie said. “It took out 100-year-old trees.”

The city owns the former boat-factory property.

“We cleaned all that up,” Rorie said. “That’s where we’re doing our recycling of tree limbs. We have a grinder that goes around town and picks up, and we’re selling mulch.

“We’ve had one house that was damaged real bad — well, it was totaled, and it was removed from the property sometime last year.

“I think that was probably the last place that was totaled that needed to be removed.”

He said ownership of the property changed hands “a few times.”

A homeowner who could see the eyesore called the city and asked that the debris be removed.

“We called the property owner, and they had it gone within a week or so,” he said.

Tornado sirens were purchased with a grant after that tornado, Rorie said.

He said they are tested at noon each Wednesday “unless the weather looks threatening.”

The Vilonia mayor echoed a sentiment of many who have been through a tornado.

“When you hear that storm siren go off, it’s a little nerve-wracking,” Firestone said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or


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