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The storms struck on an unusually warm Saturday afternoon while the Arkansas Razorbacks were losing to Louisiana State University on TV. From Hope in Hempstead County to Marmaduke in Greene County — a fat swath of southern and central Arkansas — whatever annoyance fans felt as weather warnings interrupted the game was drowned out by sirens.

Over the next five hours March 1, 1997, four distinct supercell thunderstorms spawned 16 tornadoes.

With the very air wailing, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette staff members Jim Brooks, Sandy Davis, Kristen Everett, Linda Friedlieb, Mary Hargrove, Jim Kordsmeier, Jay Meisel, Doug Peters, Noel Oman, Chris Reinolds, Susan Roth, Judd Slivka, Joe Stumpe, Mark Waller, Frank Wolfe, Rick McFarland, Benjamin Krain, Chris Johnson and their newsroom support team began gathering information, an effort that continued for days.

At American Red Cross feeding stations, in hospitals and churches, over the phone, on streets beside heaps of rubble and splintered tree trunks, they spoke to suffering Arkansans and heard their stories.

This Page 1 of the March 2 paper reported that 20 people were known to have died and more than 200 were hurt. The coming days would reveal hundreds more had been injured, and the death toll would rise to 25 — and then to 26 when a tree service worker hit a live power line in Pulaski County while trying to remove brush.

According to the National Weather Service historical archive, three of the 16 tornadoes rated F4 on the Fujita scale, with winds in excess of 166 mph. Although not the state’s deadliest outbreak — 111 people died in storms March 21, 1952 — no tornadoes since 1997 have taken so many lives. One tornado March 1 was tracked 67 miles — from two miles northeast of Hope through Arkadelphia in Clark County to four miles east of Malvern in Hot Spring County. That is not the state record — the “Super Tuesday” tornado of Feb. 5, 2008, left a 122-mile path — but tornadoes typically confine their ruin to a few miles.

In hard-hit Arkadelphia, the Clark County Courthouse was clobbered. At Jacksonport, the restored White River steamboat Mary Woods No. II was tossed 150 feet onto the riverbank. In all, 1,200 buildings were demolished or damaged.

The National Weather Service in North Little Rock issued 57 warnings. According to the Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas, meteorologist Ed Buckner of KTHV-TV tracked one of the killer tornadoes live on TV through central Arkansas via the station’s radar service in a first for area broadcasters.

Gov. Mike Huckabee noted that early warning systems, including a new emergency broadcast system, appeared to have saved lives. “That was good news,” Huckabee said. “But it was not good enough news. The bad news is that no matter how much warning you have, you can’t stop a tornado.”

— Celia Storey

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