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Monday, September 01, 2014, 1:40 p.m.
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Standing their ground

Vilonia tornado survivor plans to rebuild home on twice-hit property

By Tammy Keith

This article was published May 4, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Preston Scroggin of Vilonia looks at the flag he had installed Monday after the April 27 tornado blew away his home, barn and outbuildings on what he calls the south farm, where he has lived since 1980. Scroggin said the flag makes the statement that Vilonia is strong and will rise again. The tree was one of only three of his that survived the April 25, 2011, tornado, he said, but the tree was heavily damaged this time. Scroggin, a former Faulkner County judge, is director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission.

Preston Scroggin, 47, of Vilonia closed his eyes and tilted back his head to count how long he’d lived in his home that the April 27 tornado took down to the slab.

“Thirty-four years,” he said, standing in what used to be his bedroom.

“It sucked everything out of it,” Scroggin said.

Scroggin, director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission and a former Faulkner County judge, wasn’t home that night when the powerful EF4-rated tornado pummeled his hometown.

He and his fiancee, Lori Ross of Conway, were visiting her relatives in Center Ridge when they heard bad weather was coming.

By the time they got to Plumerville, “we saw the wall cloud,” he said. Scroggin said he hopped in his truck when they got to her house and headed toward Vilonia.

His parents, Doris and Don Scroggin, live on a farm on Naylor Road, close to the Parkwood Meadows subdivision, one of the hardest hit in Vilonia. He said his parents’ home is about two miles from his home.

“Mom and Dad rode it out,” he said.

“I was on the phone with Dad, and he was on the back porch. He said, ‘I can see it — it’s on the ground; it’s bad.’ He was on the phone when it hit Parkwood Meadows. He said, ‘I gotta go.’” Scroggin said his mother hid in the pantry.

As Scroggin got close to his home, he saw lights on and thought maybe it was like “last time.” In 2011, a tree fell on his house and caused some damage, but it was manageable.

They lived in the house, although it had some leaks.

“It was a narrow damage path but more severe than last time. I kept thinking, ‘Well, it’s maybe not too bad.’”

As he drove, he started seeing the devastation and knew it was worse than he thought.

His family home since 1980, on land he and his father farmed, gone. Equipment barn, gone. Livestock barn, gone. A 1948 barn built by Mennonites, gone.

“I think you go numb with shock. I think your mind puts you in a different mode,” Scroggin said.

Even though he had talked to his dad, who told him windows were blown out “but we’re alive,” Scroggin wanted to see his parents.

Scroggin said when he got to the Centennial Bank branch on U.S. 64B, he couldn’t drive any farther, and he walked to his parents’ home in the dark. Three of his four-wheelers were destroyed.

“It was surreal out here Sunday night,” he said. “There were ambulances. There were helicopters landing. Medical helicopters were circling, three or four at a time, people running out with injuries.”

At his parents’ home, they lost all the outbuildings on the farm and two barns.

“We’ve got one tractor here pretty severely damaged, lost a hay barn here, and it blew all the windows out of their cars,” he said. “They had a metal roof, and it took part of it, but it had shingles under it, so they’re getting by.”

When he came back to his home, he said he found his track hoe unharmed, and he used it to clear the road, and then he checked on neighbors.

“It’s always life first,” he said. Scroggin said he knew a couple of the victims who lived in the Parkwood Meadows subdivision.

Scroggin and a partner owned the property and sold the lots for those homes.

“Even though Vilonia has grown, it’s still a close-knit community,” Scroggin said.

“I’ve never seen any damage like this; that’s what floored me, how complete it was.

“It’s not about me,” he said repeatedly. “I feel sorry for those folks who are deceased, those families. I was down Sunday and Monday, but I got my wings back.”

Finding so many of his cattle injured and dead was hard on him, he said.

As of Wednesday, he said he’d lost about 70 cattle out of 300 on the 650-acre farm where he lives. He and his father also farm an additional 350 acres at his parents’ home.

“I had a good set this year,” Scroggin said of his cattle.

Mike Hutchens of Conway, a friend who was helping Scroggin with cleanup, said the cattle had all kinds of injuries.

“We found five dead this morning,” Hutchens said. “There’s still some walking wounded.

“They’re raised to be eaten, but not to be destroyed in that manner,” Hutchens said.

Scroggin recalled a special member of his herd that was killed.

“I had an old Hereford steer that got sick during the winter. I’d nursed him back to health. He was a big old doe-headed steer. I fed him Sunday morning. I could catch his old tail, and I’d gotten in such a habit with it; he’d come right up to the tractor, and I’d catch his tail and he’d pull me around,” Scroggin said, laughing and imitating catching its tail. “He was a friendly old fellow. We found him uptown.”

Scroggin said he found a Mayflower city limits sign in his pasture, among all the sheet metal and debris.

“We all took a lick — all the way from Plantation (a subdivision near Mayflower) to the county line, it cut a scar. We’ll get over this. We’re going to rebuild Vilonia; we’re going to rebuild Mayflower,” he said.

Scroggin said he is missing a few sentimental things, too.

“There was an antique Coke sign that was in my grandfather’s (Virgil Scroggin’s) original store in Springfield (Arkansas), and I haven’t found it,” he said. “That’s memories. That’s from the ’30s and ’40s. Wish I could find that.”

He also had the door from the old log cabin in Solgohachia where his grandfather was born, and it’s gone.

His Winchester gun safe is gone. “There’s a reward for that,” he said.

“I loved antiques. I just collected. I was a hoarder, so I won’t do that again,” he said.

“It looks like a bomb went off in that corner,” he said, referring to one side of the slab.

Every few minutes, Scroggin or a friend would notice something else in the tangle of debris piled on the slab — a Fleetwood Mac 8-track tape, a toothbrush, a pocket knife, a jacket, a potato peeler, an envelope with a 2010 receipt from his county-judge tenure.

Had he still been county judge during this tornado, he said, “I couldn’t do it; I would have to relieve my command.”

“Here’s an old fire department pager,” he said, picking it up. Scroggin was a Vilonia volunteer firefighter for 20-something years, he said.

“That Vilonia Fire Department has done a good job,” he said. Scroggin also said he’s proud of the response 0f Conway Regional Medical Center, where his fiancee is employed.

Scroggin’s state-issued Durango was destroyed, as well as a farm fuel truck.

A friend brought in a travel trailer and set it up for him, and getting electricity and water was a blessing, he said.

Ross bought him a razor and some clothes because all he had were the ones on his back.

Scroggin said he doesn’t feel sorry for himself in the least.

“I feel sorry for these folks who’ve lost loved ones; I haven’t had to go to any

funerals,” he said.

Several people showed up to check on Scroggin, a former state representative, as he talked, including Curtis Tucker of Conway, Les Hopp of Vilonia and former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays.

“Goodness, gracious,” Hays said, surveying the damage as far as the eye could see.

“We’ll pull through,” Scroggin said.

Hopp, Hays and Scroggin talked about the weather that fateful day.

Hopp said he told his wife it was going to be fine because it rained. Scroggin agreed.

“An old farmer knows when it rains, it’s over with,” Scroggin said. Not this time.

Hays mentioned the flag pole and flag attached to a big, but mangled, tree with sheet metal wrapped around one limb.

Scroggin said the tree is one of only three around his home that survived the 2011 tornado.

“I don’t think it’ll survive this one,” he said.

Scroggin said he asked Conway Farm & Home Supply employees the day after the storm to put up the flag.

“Hey, rise again,” he said.

“That’s the country; that’s what we do,” Hays said.

Scroggin said he plans to rebuild on the property.

“Yeah. I made my mind up. I wasn’t so sure Sunday or Monday, but farming’s what I do. I was raised out here,” he said.

Scroggin said he isn’t afraid of rebuilding on property that a tornado hit twice.

“Nah,” he said. “That’s the way life is — you pick yourself up and move on.”

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

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