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Little Rock picks up pieces after tornado

by Grant Lancaster | April 1, 2023 at 11:55 p.m.
Blake Eason recovers belongings from his home Saturday in the Walnut Valley neighborhood of west Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

West Little Rock residents on Saturday returned to neighborhoods damaged by an EF3 tornado to pick their belongings from the rubble, while volunteers brought food and water, cleared fallen trees and limbs and helped out wherever they could.

Until Friday afternoon, Little Rock’s Walnut Valley neighborhood featured streets lined by countless large, shady trees. But on Saturday, there wasn’t a shred of vegetation still standing in what had been the storm’s path. The lighter color of broken limbs and exposed roof beams showed through the jumble of downed limbs and wind-blown debris.

Dozens of homes had been clawed at by the high winds, had roofs ripped away, or were crushed under falling trees.

But the neighborhood was full of people Saturday afternoon, mostly volunteers who had come to help family members and even total strangers pick up the pieces. Stations had been set up to provide shade, food and water.

Demi Penor was outside her home of 49 years, watching her children and others pull out things that belong to her and her mother, who is nearly 100 years old and was at home with her Friday when the storm hit.

She had been warned by her daughter on the phone not two minutes before the storm struck, Penor said. She rushed her mother, who has trouble getting around and can’t see, to the bathroom just in time.

“Oh my god, it sounds like a freight train!” Penor remembers thinking. “And then all of a sudden it hit, and I felt the house go up and come down. And then we started hearing everything hitting the roof and glass and windows and wind. That lasted about one minute.”

The two women took shelter in the bathroom, which she says is the only part of the house that was undamaged. Trees were toppled all around and most of the 52-year-old house’s roof was torn away.

“The mirror didn’t even come off the wall,” Penor said. “The toothbrushes didn’t even fall out of their holder.”

When the storm passed, they emerged and immediately realized they could see through the hole in the roof. Pieces of the ceiling and roof continued to fall for almost an hour after the few moments of terror.

“It was just unbelievable,” Penor said. “Three minutes. It started and was over in three minutes.”

Firefighters were eventually able to get to them. Fire Station No. 9, which was within eyesight of Penor’s home now that the storm had sheared the trees away, had been badly damaged at the same time.

“The fire department came and helped get my granny out,” Demi’s son Rick said. “They hauled her out on a sheet and they got her to the fire [station].”

On Friday, all Demi Penor had been able to get from her house was some important paperwork, but by Saturday many volunteers had arrived and were helping all throughout the ravaged neighborhood.

“It’s amazing to me, we are very very blessed,” she said.

Barely a mile from Walnut Valley, the tornado badly damaged the Calais Forest apartments and Vitality Living Pleasant Hills, an assisted living facility. Both complexes are on the ridgeline off of Napa Valley Road, overlooking part of west Little Rock.

Some of the buildings in the assisted living complex had their roofs ripped off or had other structural damage, but most pressing was the lack of power, said resident Irma Jean Harper.

Around 200 residents needed to be moved — the assisted living residents were headed to a facility that could care for them in Mississippi, while the more independent residents were going to family members or other locations in the city, she said.

Buses were seen taking residents out of the complex around 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ve got memory patients here, and you can only imagine what they’re going through,” Harper said.

Harper took cover in the bathroom of her apartment on Friday afternoon, she said. The experience was terrifying.

“It sounded like a huge vacuum cleaner coming over the top of the house,” Harper said.

Most of the Calais Forest apartments next door had been ripped apart by the high winds. Cars, including a mail truck, lay on their sides or tops, flung across the parking lot as if they weighed nothing.

Residents picked through the darkened remains of their homes. Some units were gutted, with pieces of the walls hanging at bizarre angles or swaying in the afternoon breeze. Others appeared relatively undisturbed inside, offering odd glimpses at peoples’ lives through torn-away walls and roofs.

Aaron Davis and his mother were recovering what they could Saturday afternoon, carrying it across the complex’s parking lot because it was largely inaccessible to vehicles. He had mostly been able to get clothes, he said.

“Everything else tore up,” Davis said.

He had been trying to get home Friday to rescue his dog. He only made it to the complex after the storm passed, but firefighters were able to rescue the canine for him.

“Gotta take it day by day from here, man,” he said.

On the other end of Breckenridge Drive from the homes in Walnut Valley, volunteers were clearing away debris in the neighborhood behind the Colony West Shopping Center, off Rodney Parham Road. The shops were heavily damaged on Friday, and wind carried debris into people’s yards and homes.

Brian Roper, who lives on the street, said he never thought it would hit so close. He was watching the weather from his garage when he had to run for cover.

“The roar, as the F3 came through, I could see stuff swirling,” Roper said. “I watched it go there here, it took 30 seconds and all this damage. Most damage I’ve ever seen, I’ve lived here 23 years.”

Roper said that at least 25 people, most of whom were strangers to him, had offered to help with food or labor.

“God is good, and I’m telling you these people were husband and wife with their kids, and they’re teaching their kids how to give and do, which is awesome,” Roper said.

Surviving the tornado was nightmarish, Roper said, but he was encouraged by the community helping each other out in the aftermath.

“The general public has been incredible,” Roper said. “Now, let’s see how the government kicks in.”

On Cantrell Road, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott toured the damaged apartments and homes near the Purple Cow restaurant Saturday morning.

That afternoon, a handful of employees at ReNew apartments sat on the bed of a pickup truck with cases of water.

They were warning people away from at least one building that had a tree leaning on one side of it and had unstable-looking parts on the upper story. Bricks, wood and an air conditioning unit had already tumbled into the parking lot, landing on a parked car.

“You can’t go in something like that when the roof’s still falling in, and they don’t wanna listen,” LJ Long said.


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