Agency director recounts timeline of disaster preparation, response; 121 homes destroyed in Arkansas tornadoes, he says

1,700 more affected, House committee told

Dan West of Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief works Thursday afternoon to clear a fallen tree off a home in west Little Rock that was destroyed by the tornado. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The tornadoes that ripped through Arkansas last week destroyed roughly 120 homes and affected nearly 1,700 others, the director of the state's emergency management agency said Thursday.

A.J. Gary, Arkansas Division of Emergency Management director and state Homeland Security adviser, cited the figures during a briefing he gave to the House Advanced Communication and Information Technology Committee early Thursday afternoon.

According to preliminary figures determined through satellite imagery and other efforts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, 184 other homes received major damage, while 447 received minor damage, Gary said. Those figures do not include businesses that were affected by the storms.

Five shelters have been set up to house those displaced by the severe weather, the director said. The shelters, which can hold 743 people total, were being used by 110 people on Thursday.

The EF3 tornado in Central Arkansas reached maximum wind speeds of 165 mph, was 600 yards wide and carved a 32-mile long path through the region, according to the director. The EF3 tornado that struck Wynne reached wind speeds of 150 mph, was 1,600 yards wide, and traveled 73 miles.

[STORM COVERAGE: Read our full coverage » arkansasonline.com/323tornado]

During the briefing, Gary also said that $399,382.19 in federal aid has been approved so far for affected residents who applied for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At least 3,470 people have registered for assistance through FEMA, he said.

TIMELINE

In addition to providing state lawmakers details on the tornadoes' immediate impact, Gary also recounted what his agency did before, during and after the storms, and praised the role local, state and federal officials have played in responding to the weather disaster that left five people dead and dozens displaced.

As forecasts solidified on March 30, the day before the storms, the division decided to activate the state emergency operations center. According to the agency's website, the center supports local jurisdictions by providing such resources as strategic assistance, advice and other information.

Because of the activation, division teams were "in the seats, ready to go if something happened."

Gary was in Washington last Friday meeting a FEMA representative, but flew back into Little Rock at 1 p.m., he said. The tornado that swept through Central Arkansas touched down just about an hour and a half later, tearing through Pulaski County.

"As soon as I landed I turned my phone on, I started getting messages about the system that was coming quickly into Arkansas," he said, adding that he immediately went to the operations center.

The director said he was on the phone with FEMA administrator Tony Robinson on Friday night, and the first FEMA representatives arrived in the state early Saturday, traveling from Denton, in neighboring Texas.

"They actually slept on the floor at the SEOC because their hotels weren't available until the following day," Gary said.

As the governor and other officials toured the damaged areas on Saturday, a team from the Division of Emergency Management and FEMA representatives flew in a Black Hawk along the path of the tornadoes. The information collected from their flight played a key role in getting the necessary documents ready for the governor to request a major disaster declaration, according to Gary.

The request was submitted Sunday and approved before 7 p.m., just two days after the storms. Gary recalled that, after the historic Arkansas River flooding in 2019, it took nearly a week to get a declaration.

"We were very proud of that five or six days to get it because that was unheard of, to get it that quick," he said. "I don't know how we could have gotten a major declaration any quicker than what we did."

By Monday, an assistance line was open to Arkansans who were affected, and by that afternoon people began receiving funds, according to Gary.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday asked the federal government to cover all state and local recovery expenses for the first 30 days after Friday's severe weather. Gary said the reimbursement request covers debris cleanup and emergency protective measures.

The state hasn't yet received a response, according to the director.

Gary said he hopes to have disaster recovery centers set up early next week, and a long-term facility to work on recovery efforts is also in the works.

In the meantime, disaster survivor assistance teams have been set up in affected areas.

CLEANUP

Gary praised officials, crews and volunteers for their prompt efforts to clean up areas struck by the storms.

"I can't say enough about how great they have been to work with, and how quickly they are tackling a very huge, monumental debris problem in all of our affected communities."

Cleanup began almost immediately, with most cities using contractors to handle the efforts.

With the help of contracted companies, cities including Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood have begun cleaning up debris from the tornado in earnest.

As of Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after they had began, the disaster relief company CrowderGulf had collected 127 truckloads of debris, totaling 6.8 thousand cubic yards according to a spokesperson for North Little Rock.

That debris would be mulched and taken to a landfill area.

Meanwhile in Little Rock, the city has set up a public drop-off area at Reservoir Park on Cantrell Road that was hit directly by the tornado, seeing a "vast majority" of its trees blown over, said Public Works director Jon Honeywell.

The site, which opened Tuesday, has been set up for both vegetation and construction debris. Right now, it's only affecting 3 to 4 acres of the park.

The location will be open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m for people to deposit debris at no charge.

That includes private citizens, tree companies and volunteer groups.

Honeywell "guesstimated" that on Tuesday and Wednesday, the site received between 500 and 600 loads of material.

"It's been pretty successful," Honeywell said. "It hasn't had a real traffic impact. We were concerned about having long lines. ... We've got quite a queuing distance internally. But our concern was people trying to get out onto Cantrell. But the police have been very supportive in that."

Honeywell wouldn't estimate the total amount of material collected so far, but said that in the contract bid documents for contract debris removal, the Public Works department was including an estimate of up to 600,000 cubic yards would be need to be cleared.

"It was about a 6½-mile track that the storm took through Little Rock," Honeywell said. "It was a pretty wide path and literally almost every tree in that path was knocked down. So eventually all that's going to have to be collected and disposed of. ... Obviously, we aren't going to be able to do that ourselves in a timely manner."

Honeywell said the city has bids out to contractors to conduct curbside collection in the affected areas in the city.

Those bids will close on Monday and are for a 160-day period.

"We split the city into three separate zones or areas and each one of those will have its own contract bid," Honeywell said. "Some of that's just to try to spread some of that work out across multiple contractors, or an attempt to do that."

There are also contracts out for third-party monitoring.

"That's part of the FEMA reimbursement process. You have to have groups that are a third-party monitoring group that monitors the quantities, how the material's collected, where it's deposited, how its disposed of," Honeywell said.

Both Little Rock and North Little Rock are requiring residents to sort their trash into specific piles: normal household trash, vegetative debris, construction/demolition debris, appliances/white good, electronics and household hazardous waste.

Eventually, the city will put out contracts to have someone come to Reservoir Park and grind all the debris. Then it will be taken to city's landfill to be processed through its mulching and composting facility.

From there it can be stored, turned into compost or returned to the public as mulch.

LONG DAYS FOR CLEANUP CREWS

Since the tornadoes hit on Friday, Honeywell said his crews have been working 12-hour days, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

They'll take Sunday off for Easter.

"Then we'll be right back at it and we'll probably stay at those hours at least the next week," Honeywell said.

Six days after the twister, Honeywell said he was "tired, but not miserable. ... we're hanging in there."

Like North Little Rock, Sherwood has also contracted the services of CrowderGulf and has three trucks roaming the city to collect debris.

That debris is being taken to the northeast corner of Arkansas 107, to a 17-18 acre property owned by the Lindsey real estate company.

The city is still determining whether to establish a self-serve area for residents to be able to drop off debris, according to the city public information officer, Heather Jenkins.

When it comes to CrowderGulf's operations, "The only thing we're requiring of our citizens is that they have [their debris] within 25 feet of the right of way at the street," Jenkins said. "That will be a process where CrowderGulf comes through with their trucks one week, because the piles are often exceeding 25 feet and so that pile will have to migrate closer to the street and then they'll come back through. They will be taking that to the dump site."

Jenkins said the city's goal was that no resident would have to pay for the removal of any debris.

"We are only asking that they try to keep their green waste separate from their construction waste," Jenkins said.

Jenkins estimated it could take up to 60 days for the operation to be complete.

"It's not going to be done in a week," Jenkins said. "This could take a couple of months, passing and passing and passing and then in addition to that, we do also know that people have debris in the back of the house. So that has to get to the front of the house to be picked up by CrowderGulf."

The city of Jacksonville has opened a debris disposal site on Wooten Road, next to the intersection of Arkansas 161. The city will accept clean vegetation debris and is permitted for burning. The city is also accepting construction and demolition debris for staging. The Wooten Road site will be open daily from 8 a.m.- 4 p.m.

LOOKING FORWARD

During Thursday's briefing at the state Capitol, Rep. R. Scott Richardson, R-Bentonville, asked Gary whether the Division of Emergency Management is concerned that the extended response required by current recovery efforts will hurt the agency's capacity to respond to future disasters.

Gary answered that, while the effect of the tornadoes was significant, they go through similar recovery processes every year. The agency will need to hire additional public assistance staff, though, he said.

Sanders has approved the request for additional staff. According to Gary, the division will hire three staff members, but those funds will come from the federal government.

Entergy reported only about 2,400 customers remained without power shortly before 6 p.m. Thursday. The highest number of customers without power were reported in Pulaski County, 1,847; followed by Cross County, 330, according to the utility's outage map.

Showers will continue across southeastern Arkansas through this morning, according to the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. Localized flooding is possible. High temperatures are expected to vary from the upper 50s to the lower 60s.

"Drier and calmer weather" is expected in much of the state, with no rain predicted through much of the next week, the weather service said in a Twitter post.

Today, Sanders will lead a moment of silence at the state Capitol in Little Rock to remember the lives lost and those affected by the March 31 tornadoes, according to a news release from her office.


  photo  Rep. Mark Perry (left), D-Jacksonville, talks with A.J. Gary, director of the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management and state Homeland Security adviser, after Gary gave an update to legislators Thursday about the tornadoes’ immediate impact. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
 
 


  photo  Barry Napier unloads branches from a fallen tree Thursday at Reservoir Park on Cantrell Road in Little Rock. The park has been designated a debris collection site, with no charge to the public. The site will be open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)