Vilonia mayor said Sunday’s tornado much worse than 2011’s

By Tammy Keith Published May 1, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Eilish Palmer/Contributing Photographer

A tornado wiped out homes and businesses Sunday night in Vilonia. This view is of a side road off U.S. 64. Vilonia Mayor James Firestone said because Faulkner County has been declared a national major disaster area, Vilonia is eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. Firestone said he was scheduled to meet with FEMA officials Tuesday, and a damage-assessment team will be in Vilonia by today. “They come out and actually count the structures that were destroyed,” he said.

VILONIA — Sunday night, when Vilonia Mayor James Firestone was trying to make his way to City Hall, he couldn’t believe another tornado had hit the city.

“It’s just too quick for it to happen again,” he said. “It took almost the same route as the last one.”

An EF2-rated tornado tore through the community on April 25, 2011, ripping off roofs of homes and snapping trees along its path. That storm killed five people.

Sunday’s twister, rated at least an EF3, left eight dead in Vilonia, including two children.

The victims, according to the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office and Faulkner County Coroner Patrick Moore, were as follows:

• Jamye Collins, 50, of Conway

— died in a vehicle on U.S. 64 on the south side of Vilonia;

• Jeffrey Hunter, 22;

• Dennis Lavergne, 52;

• Glenna Lavergne, 53;

• David Mallory, 57;

• Cameron Smith, 8;

• Tyler Smith, 7; and

• Daniel Wassom, 31.

“This is officially the most fatalities we’ve had in one incident in 25 years,” Moore said.

Also, nine victims were hospitalized in Conway, and one man was in critical condition as of Tuesday, said Lori Ross, spokeswoman for Conway Regional Medical Center. The other eight people were in “good” condition, she said.

The tornado blew through Mayflower, where it killed three people and mangled homes and businesses before arriving in Vilonia.

Although the tornado left 2011’s target, Quail Hollow subdivision, untouched, the storm again demolished mobile homes in Black Oak Ranch Estates, Firestone said.

“The trees, what it didn’t get last time, it came back and finished,” Firestone said. Some homes that were barely touched in 2011 were destroyed this time.

“Just look — this looks like Joplin,” Firestone said, referring to the Missouri tornado in May 2011 that caused massive destruction and death. “We had nothing like this [in 2011].”

“Almost all our businesses are gone. How do you recover from that?” he said.

The strip shopping center on Main Street (U.S. 64B) is a shell of its former self.

Kieth’s Texaco on Main Street, which suffered minor damage during the 2011 tornado, was barely standing. The business’ storage building across the street — which received roof damage in the last storm — was destroyed.

Vilonia resident Haley Pool was taking pictures of the storm damage to document it, she said. Pool, 19, said she did the same thing after the 2011 tornado.

“I was born and raised here. I know what was here, but you can’t tell,” Pool said. “I want to help, but where do you start?”

Business owners and managers were working Monday to salvage items and clean up debris.

John Noel and his wife, Jeannie, were cleaning up their business, Eagle Nutrition, in a rented suite of a strip mall. The walls, roof and windows were ripped from the building.

“We’re open — we’re just wide open,” John said, joking.

“We remodeled this right after the last tornado,” he said. “This time, though, it’s more of where do you start?”

He said the business was a part-time job for him. He said he works full time at Conway Corp. Jeannie teaches at Vilonia Middle School.

With all the damage surrounding them, before-and-after weight-loss photos still were taped to the wall.

Mike Hutslar and Victor Umbright, both of Cabot, were looking at the damage to Vilonia Satellite, a business they have had since 2004.

Umbright said he planned to “keep on working, help out and rebuild.”

Michael Johnson of Vilonia said he and his wife, Nicole, owned a consignment clothing store, Artsiefartsies, in the strip mall, 1196 Main St.

“The last tornado, … we donated clothes,” he said. The business was destroyed Sunday night.

“We were out there trying to dig through stuff yesterday morning,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We pulled out as much as we could and salvaged as much clothes as we could that weren’t covered with fiberglass insulation — that was everywhere.” He said the clothes will be washed and donated.

“We were very lucky we were able to get in there and get some personal effects and financial papers,” Johnson said. Then, “we gave up” and went to help a family whose home was destroyed.

West of those businesses, another strip mall on U.S. 64 sustained less damage.

Sherrie Hoyle of Quitman, the general manager of Tobacco World, said mainly glass was blown from the front of the business, which a Heber Springs man owns, she said.

“This is worse than three years ago,” she said. Her husband, Carl, at first couldn’t get into Vilonia with wood to board up the windows, but he managed to find a back road to get into the town, she said.

Cleanup was being aided by a stream of volunteers, the Army National Guard, the Jacksonville Arkansas Task Force 1 Regional Search and Rescue Team and several other agencies.

Jack Hancock Jr. of Vilonia, a member of the Vilonia and Little Rock fire departments, was helping with search and rescue.

“This time is much worse,” the 32-year-old said.

Hancock said Monday that he was impressed with the way Vilonia was handling the tragedy.

“They’ve got an incredible amount of resources here. The command system has been phenomenal,” Hancock said. He said Fire Chief Keith Hillman was responsible for the command system.

Firestone said the Arkansas State Police “did a flyover” Sunday night.

“I said, ‘Give me an idea of how many structures are damaged,’” Firestone said. “The way the debris was strewn and the path of the debris, it was hard to distinguish one to the next.”

Firestone said counting the homes in Parkwood Meadows subdivision, as well as other homes and businesses, a “ballpark guess” is that 120 structures were damaged or destroyed.

Also, Vilonia School District Superintendent Frank Mitchell said the $13 million intermediate school on Mount Olive Road, scheduled to be completed in July, was damaged beyond repair.

Firestone said the city’s cleanup will be more complicated than the 2011 tornado, when it was primarily wood and construction debris.

“This is almost a whole different deal to clean up,” he said. “This has to be separated. You don’t just come in and scoop it up.”

Firestone pointed to multiple destroyed trucks and cars in the Parkwood Meadows neighborhood.

“There are a lot of vehicles. You’ve got antifreeze, oil, gasoline, fluids,” he said. “Cleanup is going to be altogether different, I think.”

In 2011, a staging area was created with Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality approval in an open field on south Mount Olive Road. Debris was hauled there using city equipment and through contracts with local businesses. The debris was separated into three categories — white (appliances), wood and vegetation (trees, stumps and root balls) and construction (shingles, bricks, etc.)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency allows cities to pay contractors an hourly rate to clean up after a disaster, so Firestone said the city took bids from Vilonia businesses to haul the debris to the staging area.

He said Monday that FEMA will pay 75 percent, the state 12.5 percent; and the city 12.5 percent of the cleanup costs.

Firestone planned to meet with FEMA officials Tuesday morning to do a damage estimate, he said.

After the tornado three years ago, approximately $528,000 was spent on the major cleanup of debris, of which the city was responsible for $66,000.

Sunday’s storm left the new Dollar General store in town with one wall standing, and it was precarious. People were warned not to walk too close to it. An employee of CenterPoint Energy used a backhoe to tear down the wall.

An employee of the store, Cheyenne Scott, 19, and her family were salvaging unopened drinks. Her brother, Noah Scott, 6, was lugging a sack of drinks that probably weighed as much as he did. The family planned to take the drinks to a shelter.

Churches were hit, too, including the Vilonia United Methodist Church on Main Street.

A flag was stuck into a stump of a tree near the damaged building.

“That epitomizes Vilonia right there. That’s patriotic to me — I like seeing that,” Firestone said.

Brittany Patterson, a member of Army National Guard Unit 213, said her unit was at an annual training in Fort Smith when it got orders at about 10 p.m. Sunday to head to Vilonia.

“There are so many different units and agencies working together. That amazes me, how well everybody’s working together,” she said.

Firestone said despite the fact that Vilonia was hit hard, its people are resilient.

“We’ll come back, and we’ll rebuild. We’re here to stay,” Firestone said.

Letters on a damaged sign on U.S. 64 put it this way: “We will soar again.”

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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