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Tornado deaths reach 15

Day after, state takes inventory of damage by Kenneth Heard | April 29, 2014 at 5:55 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN --04/28/14-- Residents and rescue workers search through destroyed homes in the Park Wood Meadow neighborhood of Vilonia where several people died Sunday night during the storm.

National Weather Service officials estimated Monday that the tornado that killed at least 15 people Sunday night had wind speeds of up to 165 mph as it carved a 40-mile-long path of destruction through central Arkansas.

Gov. Mike Beebe declared Faulkner, Pulaski and White counties state disaster areas. On Monday afternoon, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate visited Mayflower and Vilonia, and Beebe sought a federal disaster declaration for Faulkner County.

In Vilonia, where many of the deaths occurred, the storm flattened a wide section of town. Authorities set a 7 p.m. curfew Monday for the damaged areas of the city whose population is just over 4,100 people, Faulkner County spokesman David Hogue said.

Nonresidents were asked to leave Vilonia by 7 p.m., and residents who chose to remain were asked to stay inside their homes until 7 a.m. today. U.S. 64 through the city was closed to all but emergency personnel. Arkansas 89 east of Mayflower was also closed Monday.

Sunday evening’s tornado - after touching down in Pulaski County - crossed Interstate 40, mangling recreational vehicles and flipping over 80,000-pound tractor-trailers. On Monday, traffic crept on I-40 as motorists slowed to survey the damage, state Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Danny Straessle said.

At one point, traffic was backed up for nearly 20 miles between the Maumelle exit and Conway. “We had reports of a few fender benders Monday, but nothing major,” Straessle said.

Weather service meteorologists assessed the damage Monday, tracking the twister’s path from western Pulaski County northeast through Mayflower and Vilonia. They have yet to determine whether the tornado continued into northeastern Arkansas or whether a second tornado formed and traveled an additional 40 miles from northern White County into Jackson County. Farther north, numerous county roads were closed Monday because of flooding.

Emergency officials said Sunday’s tornado killed 11 people in Faulkner County, three in Pulaski County and one from El Paso in White County. According to information from the families and county officials, the victims were:

Rebekah Tittle, 14, of Paron.

Tori Tittle, 20, of Paron.

Robert Tittle, 48, of Paron.

Mark Bradley, 51, of Mayflower.

Helen Greer, 72, of Mayflower.

Robert Oliver, 82, of Mayflower.

Tyler Smith, 7, of Vilonia.

Cameron Smith, 8, of Vilonia.

Jeffrey Hunter, 22, of Vilonia.

Daniel Wassom, 31, of Vilonia.

Jayme Collins, 50, of Vilonia.

Dennis Lavergne, 52, of Vilonia.

Glenna Lavergne, 53, of Vilonia.

David Mallory, 58, of Vilonia.

Paula Blakemore, 55, of El Paso.

Early in the day Sunday, the National Weather Service in North Little Rock warned of a possible outbreak of tornadoes.

“There was a lot of moisture over the state,” said meteorologist Emilie Nipper of North Little Rock. “We had the dryline clash with a cold front moving in.”

The tornado formed in western Pulaski County and went near Ferndale and Roland at 7:10 p.m. and headed northeast, crossing I-40 between mile markers 137 and 139, then striking Mayflower at 7:34 p.m. Five minutes later, the tornado hit Saltillo, damaging several homes. It slammed into Vilonia at 7:50 p.m.

Joel Martin of Pulaski County said he was upstairs in his home Sunday, keeping an eye on the clouds as the wind intensified outside.

“I looked outside and all the leaves, they were blowing straight up in the air … like a vacuum,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He said he didn’t hear or see the tornado, but he could feel it.

He raced downstairs. As soon as he reached the bottom level, the home collapsed. Martin said he found himself pinned upside-down under debris with “great pressure” on his chest. He saw daylight peeking through the debris and he climbed, twisted and fought his way out of the rubble.

“I had an angel with me,” he said.

On Monday, a few properties away from Martin’s home, Lance Hobday handed sets of fantasy-based board games to his wife, Dena.

On Sunday night, he, his wife and his 6-year-old daughter took shelter in a closet.

“As soon as we closed the door, we could hear the roof tear off. Then it felt like a roller coaster for a minute,” he said. “It seems kind of silly to get all these games, but it’s about all there is.

“People always say how lucky they are after stuff like this,” he said. “We are. We are lucky we’re alive.”

In Mayflower, Sunday’s tornado destroyed an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintenance shed, clubhouse and dog-training facility at the Camp Robinson Special Use Area. It also reduced several homes and businesses to rubble.

In Vilonia, the tornado wiped away several homes, leaving only concrete slabs, and demolished businesses along Main Street. As the storm approached, Glenda Sellers and her husband, Hal, sought shelter in an old cellar across the street from their Wicker Road home near the center of town. They huddled in the small concrete room that had a wooden door that wouldn’t close.

“I saw the whole ball of debris,” Glenda Sellers said.

The storm cut a 1.5-foot deep trench along the southern side of the shelter.

“It’s like it dug into theside of the storm cellar,” she said. “It moved the cellar. You could feel it moving the whole time we were in it.”

Michelle Coker took shelter in the hallway in the center of her Aspen Creek Drive home in Vilonia. The house caved in around her and her two children, Chloe, 6, and Jackson, 5. Most of the homes along the street in the Parkwood Meadows subdivision were left as messy piles of splintered wood and brick.

“It’s crazy,” said Jessica Coker, Michelle Coker’s sister who arrived from Little Rock to check on the family. “There’s a car … and a four-wheeler just inside where the house used to be. We don’t know who they belong to. My sister still can’t find her car. She walked out into the fields behind here and checked. It’s just nowhere.”

Kim Coker, Jessica and Michelle’s mother, clutched blankets as she made her way through the rubble to her car.

“I found the blankets, so the kids will be happy,” she said. “It’s the one thing they really wanted. My grandson last night was telling everyone, ‘My house got broken. Mommy, we’re going to need to buy a new house tomorrow.’”

Sunday’s storm was the deadliest in the state in 17 years. A March 1, 1997, tornado killed 25 people in Saline and Pulaski counties. On Feb. 5, 2008, 14 people died when a tornado raged from Atkins in Pope County to Highland in Sharp County.

The deadliest tornado in the state occurred on March 21, 1952, when 112 people were killed in central Arkansas.

On Monday, the Arkansas National Guard activated 54 of its members to assist local authorities with traffic control and to transport water. The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management requested two 400-gallon water trucks for Mayflower and a 400-gallon water truck for Vilonia. Several state agencies, nearby communities and many volunteers responded to help, as well.

The governor summed up the situation in a Monday morning news conference in Mayflower. “These are Arkansans helping Arkansans, like they always do. Neighbor helping neighbor in a time of need,” an Arkansas National Guard news release said.

Also on Monday, the White House said President Barack Obama was sending Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, to Arkansas.

Obama telephoned Beebe to get an update on the situation and to see if additional federal resources were needed. The president praised the efforts of first responders and neighbors.

Near Mayflower on Monday, highway crews briefly closed lanes of the interstate so workers could remove debris and the twisted and shattered wreckage of vehicles, Straessle said.

The tornado crossed I-40 near a construction zone where highway crews have been building a third lane in eastbound and westbound lanes. The tornado blew 20-foot-long sections of concrete barriers, each weighing 8,000 pounds, across the highway, Straessle said.

“The work zone was totally destroyed,” he said. “The challenge is getting the traffic through,” he said. “We’ve not been able to provide a solid alternate route because they were all impacted. We’re just advising people to stick it out on I-40 and proceed slowly.”

Weather service officials said it appears that the tornado lifted back into the clouds northeast of Vilonia at El Paso and then re-formed, or “recycled,” and touched down again near Searcy at 8:20 p.m. Survey crews tracked a second40-mile path through southern Independence County and Jackson County. There were no reports of injuries along the second track, officials said.

Nipper said that because northeast Arkansas was cloudy for most of Sunday and rain had cooled the area, the storm was not as intense there.

“The break and the cooler temperatures helped keep the system from sparking up a second time,” she said.

However, the storm system did create torrential rainfall.

Batesville reported receiving 7.6 inches of rain Sunday evening, Calamine in Sharp County received 6.1 inches within 3 hours and Ravenden Springs in Randolph County received 5.3 inches.

Rivers and creeks rose quickly, flooding county roads. The Eleven Point River at Ravenden Springs rose from 4.08 feet at 6:15 p.m. Sunday to 19.76 feet at 8:45 a.m. Monday. The Black River in Pocahontas rose from 7.4 feet at 6:45 p.m. Sunday to 16.5 feet at 2:45 p.m. Monday.

“We’ve got a lot of roads damaged and underwater,” Randolph County Judge David Jansen said. “Most of the county roads are gutted or washed away.”

A large storage shed floated from a residence in Pocahontas and lodged under a spillway bridge near downtown, causing heavy flooding at the city’s road department shop. Jansen said several vehicles as well as equipment were underwater Monday.

In Pfeiffer, north of Batesville, a car was washed off the Pfeiffer One Stop parking lot during a flash flood Sunday, said DeeDee Easterwood, an employee at the convenience store. “It’s better now,” she said Monday. “There’s no major problems. But there was a lot of water last night.”

Independence County Office of Emergency Management Director Glen Willis said emergency personnel conducted numerous water rescues Sunday night. A section of Brock Mountain west of Batesville slid onto Arkansas 25, closing the highway, he said.

“We had people stranded by water coming into their homes,” Willis said. “Propane tanks floated off their foundations.”

Jimmy Hubbard of Lynn had a surprising discovery while checking for damage at his farm at Strawberry in Lawrence County. He was looking for fallen limbs and flood damage to his fence when he spotted the page of a photo album on the ground.

One photo, dated July 22, 2000, was of a woman holding a baby. He also found photographs of a group of girls in formal dresses, photographs of babies, several baseball cards, a midterm report card dated April 27, 1983, for an Angie Bettis, a license plate with the word “postmaster” on it, a police record and a bank statement from a First Service Bank.

Hubbard said he thinks the items blew there from Vilonia, some 110 miles to the southwest. A neighbor found a picture in his field of students in the Vilonia High School Future Farmers of America, he said.

“It was so out of place to find this on a cattle farm,” Hubbard said. “It got nasty here. I figure the wind was really blowing.”

He turned the items over to Lawrence County Sheriff Jody Dotson in hopes of returning them to their owners.

“I’m frustrated there’s no names,” he said. “But if I lost everything … even if these are only a few memories, I’d like to have them back.” Information for this article was contributed by Chad Day, Claudia Lauer, Spencer Willems and Noel Oman of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; and by staff members of The Associated Press.

Where to get help

The American Legion has cash grants up to $1,500 for emergency assistance in counties that have been declared disaster areas by the governor. (800) 433-3318. Legion family members could be eligible to receive up to $1,500 in emergency assistance. Applicants must have been displaced from their primary residence and provide proof of out-of-pocket expenses, including, but not limited to, temporary housing, food, water and clothing. The American Legion or Sons of The American Legion membership must be active at time of disaster and the time of application. Detailed information and an application for assistance may be downloaded at www.legion.org/ emergency.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services, in conjunction with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, has established a feeding site in Mayflower for families who need a meal. Families are asked to go to Mayflower Middle School at 18 Eagle Circle, Mayflower. The facility will serve lunch and dinner and is working to secure breakfast.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel advises storm victims to call his office at (800) 482-8982 to get connected with government and private organizations that are providing information and assistance.

Legacy Residentials in Conway, 945 Carson Cove, Suite 105, has a number of rental properties, including some that are furnished, that are available, and property owners are willing to work with victims of the tornadoes to get them in a dwelling. Some properties will require no deposit. First-month rent assistance is also available in some cases. Properties include apartments, houses and duplexes. More information is available at (501) 513-8999. Office hours are 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

U-Haul Company of Arkansas, 4809 W. 65th St., Little Rock. (800) 722-4923. U-Haul is offering 30 days of free self-storage and U-Box Portable Moving and Self-Storage Pods. People who need boxes can take advantage of the U-Haul Take a Box, Leave a Box Program. U-Haul encourages anyone who has any type of reusable box to drop it off at the nearest U-Haul location and allow another family to reuse the box, free of charge.

How to help

Tornado Path in Central Arkansas, April 27th
Gallery: Storm Graphics

Arkansas tornado damage — April 27, 2014

Video available

Videos taken around central Arkansas in the aftermath of a devastating tornado that ripped through the area April 27, 2014.

Watch Video

Front Section, Pages 1 on 04/29/2014

Print Headline: Tornado deaths reach 15

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