VILONIA — Two things went undamaged when a deadly tornado tore through Steve Ray's longtime Oak Street home: his gun safe and the metal safe room where Ray, his wife, their daughter and son-in-law and three grandchildren survived.
The rest of the structure was reduced to a rubble that has since been hauled away, leaving behind only a concrete slab of the home where the Rays lived together for more than 40 years. But like many Vilonia residents working to recover from the devastating April 27 tornado, the Rays are already beginning the process of rebuilding.
"I've been here all my life," Ray said Tuesday, the one-month anniversary of the tornado that killed 16 people in Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties. "You can move 2 miles down the road and the next tornado might there. You could move to Florida and get hit by a hurricane. You can't outguess them. I'll stick right here."
On Cemetery Road in another heavily damaged stretch of Vilonia, 54-year-old Tony Fowlkes was working Tuesday to help rebuild his mother's tornado-destroyed home. She survived in a nearby storm shelter and has been staying with her son since, visiting her property on occasion and helping pick out new colors and features for the rebuilt home.
"It's giving her something to look forward to," Fowlkes said. "She's excited."
Fowlkes said cleaning up was made easier by scores of volunteers who showed up in the days after the storm and helped sort and clear debris. Rebuilding has been a little trickier, he said, because volunteer numbers have dwindled and because construction officials are in high demand. Insurance money, meanwhile, hasn't yet come through and the work so far has had to be financed on credit cards.
Still, progress was being made: A new cinderblock foundation on the footprint of the destroyed home was recently added and plumbing work was under way Tuesday. A new concrete slab will likely be poured this week.
And the community has stuck together, offering one another assistance as needed, Fowlkes said.
"Everybody is working together and trying to help each other," he said. "People are trying to get back on their feet."
Ray, 61, has been staying mostly in a camper parked on his property while crews first complete his shop building and then start on the new house. He said the latter would probably start going up in a few weeks after plans for it are finalized.
The Rays added the safe room to their garage as a precaution after a tornado hit Vilonia in 2011, causing minor damage. Ray said he had doubts then it would actually work, but was pleasantly surprised to see how well it fared.
"I don't know how we would have survived without it," he said, adding the new home will have one too. "Definitely. There will definitely be one in there."