City officials and residents proud of rebuilding since 2023 Little Rock tornado, say years of work lay ahead

Much done, officials note, but looters, landlord apathy rued

The home of David and Veronique Odekirk on E. Stoney Point Court in Little Rock received significant damage from a tornado that hit the area on March 31, 2023. Photographed on Monday, March 18, 2024. More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Kyle McDaniel)
The home of David and Veronique Odekirk on E. Stoney Point Court in Little Rock received significant damage from a tornado that hit the area on March 31, 2023. Photographed on Monday, March 18, 2024. More photos at Democrat-Gazette/Kyle McDaniel)

A year after two tornadoes upended lives across northeast and Central Arkansas, Little Rock residents and officials said they were immensely proud of what has been rebuilt, but that years of work remain ahead for many.

Little Rock City Director Capi Peck of Ward 4 said two obstacles have made it especially difficult for some of her constituents to rebuild in the wake of the disaster: opportunistic looting and apathy from out-of-state owners of rental properties.

The EF3 tornado that hit March 31, 2023, carved a 32-mile long path through the region. It injured more than 50 people in Little Rock and damaged roughly 3,000 structures there before tracking through North Little Rock, Sherwood and eventually weakening in Cabot.

One person in North Little Rock died in the immediate aftermath. A separate tornado that day in Wynne killed four people, injured more than two dozen others and left a trail of destruction nearly a mile wide.

Of the structures damaged in Little Rock, 600 were severely affected by the storm, according to Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. Those that were damaged included homes in the Walnut Valley and Kingwood neighborhoods and businesses along Shackleford and Rodney Parham roads. Fire Station No. 9 was a total loss. Several parks, including Murray Park and Reservoir Park, also saw widespread destruction.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday that she was proud of the progress that the state has been able to make in its efforts to recover from the disaster, though work remained to be done.

"Recovery is never easy, and the scars still haven't fully healed," said Sanders, speaking at a news conference outside Pulaski County Title, 8114 Cantrell Road, which took significant damage from the tornado. Employees at the building began moving back in on Friday.

Ward 4 includes much of the area in Little Rock that experienced the most damage, including the title company.

Peck said she's seen a "remarkable difference" in terms of improvement over the past six weeks. At least some of the recent increase in progress may be the result of spring's onset and the promise of warmer temperatures, she said.

"I'm not sure if it's spring fever or what," she said. "But it's starting to look, certainly not normal, but there is a lot of construction going on, specifically in Walnut Valley."

The Walnut Valley neighborhood was hit the hardest of those in Peck's ward, she said, adding that she has worked "very, very closely" with residents there to help things return to something approaching "normal."

Peck described young people as critical to the efforts to rebuild the community. They have proved to be "the most resilient and the most eager to get back to life," she said.

However, her enthusiasm about the efforts to rebuild was tempered by obstacles that were difficult to overcome quickly and a series of issues still to be resolved.

"The first six months plus, it was just so frustrating because there was so much debris, so much damage," Peck said. "When the big contractors finally left, I had conversations with many of them, and they said they respond to disasters all over the country, and they had never seen so much devastation."

Many residents moved after their homes were damaged or destroyed, an issue that concerns neighbors who decided to stay. Another concern has been rental properties owned by people out of state who have done little to repair the damage caused by the storm, according to Peck. Many of those properties "look pretty much the same as they did March 31, (2023)," she said.

"The number of rental properties in Ward 4, it really is pretty astonishing," Peck said.

Scott said that, while the city knows cleanup remains at some properties, officials want to be sensitive to the difficulties owners may have, such as with getting money from their insurance companies. At the same time, the city is also pressing those owners and their insurers, telling them that "we've got to get moving more."

According to the Peck, the city may eventually begin issuing citations to owners who have not taken steps to clean up their property or make needed repairs. If the problems aren't resolved, the owners may be brought before Little Rock's environmental court, which handles violations of city housing codes. Peck said she hopes the issues don't persist to that point, though, as the process can take years.

The director also said a rash of crimes in affected neighborhoods, especially in Walnut Valley, has been another impediment to rebuilding.

The owner of a liquor store on Shackleford has been broken into 11 times, for instance, according to Peck.

While Peck said she has tried to get more patrols in these areas, doing so has been difficult because of short-staffing at the Police Department; according to Peck, the Police Department is "70-some-odd officers down." In the meantime, a temporary substation has been set up, and the neighborhood has started up a watch program in hopes of reducing crime.

"It just breaks my heart," she said. "But I don't know what the solution is for that."


When the tornado tore the roof off Véronique and David Odekirk's home in Walnut Valley, the rain that followed caused extensive water damage. Drywall began to crumble, and a ceiling fell. The garden that Véronique loved was destroyed. Their insurance agent told them that "things were going to get worse before they get better."

He also estimated roughly nine months would pass before they would be ready to live there again.

In the meantime, they stayed in a "small" but "quite comfortable" short-term rental in midtown and remained there as contractors rebuilt their home of 30 years. The insurance agent's prediction nearly hit the mark; they moved back in January, almost 10 months after the storm.

David Odekirk said they were fortunate to have been working with a contractor to remodel their kitchen when the tornado hit, as some of their neighbors struggled to find reliable contractors in its aftermath. They were also lucky to have good insurance.

"That took a big load off of our shoulders so that we could focus on just our mental health," he said.

Still, the process of rebuilding has been long and, occasionally, painful, according to the Odekirks.

The landscape had changed so dramatically it was sometimes difficult to recognize their own neighborhood. Not only had the storm downed countless trees across the area, but some were still lying across the houses where they had fallen, even as autumn began.

"For a long time, we didn't know where to turn because you know, the trees were gone, or the house was gone, or whatever," David Odekirk said, adding that his wife "had to relearn the whole neighborhood."

"I remember just shortly after the tornado, he was driving and I was looking down, and I looked up," Véronique Odekirk said. "I was like, 'Where are we?' And we were just on Shackleford. I had no idea."

Living away from the house as it was rebuilt helped to make the experience less difficult, though, Véronique Odekirk said.

"We called it our haven," she said. "We could get out and not live in this ugliness, this destruction."

Even now, after having left and come back to a house they are thrilled with, it is not the same home that it was, she said.

It isn't just the house's appearance, though that, too, is different -- they intentionally changed the colors of their walls, replaced paneling with drywall and sealed off a door to the kitchen. It's also the neighborhood around them. The Odekirks had gotten to a point of familiarity with their neighbors that they could walk through the community and say hello to them as they passed. They had really worked to build those relationships, Véronique Odekirk said. Many of those neighbors decided not to return, though.

"You've got to go out and start over again," she said. "Back to saying 'hello' to new people and meeting and everything."


Little Rock's mayor said city officials expressed from the outset that returning to life after the tornado wouldn't be a sprint, but a marathon. According to Scott, it often takes between one to three years "to really be completely back to normal."

However, the mayor said he wants the city to strive toward conditions beyond that.

"We don't strive to be back to normal," he said. "We want to strive to be better than normal."

Scott said he believes business owners and residents are already working in that direction.

In the storm's aftermath, city officials adopted a mindset focused on three broad strategies: respond, recover and rebuild. The city is in the rebuilding phase, according to Scott.

Little Rock is also a growing city, a reality that Scott said his administration is considering as the affected neighborhoods rebuild.

"As we build back better, we have to focus more on infrastructure, infrastructure that's going to tie into these neighborhoods as we also focus on affordable housing in these particular neighborhoods," he said.

Roughly 2,285 building permits have been issued so far in an attempt to build back what's been lost. Homes and parks are being restored, and several groups are offering trees, free of charge, to residents who lost theirs.

Among the businesses that have reopened after months of closure are a Kroger on North Rodney Parham Road, which spent at least $4 million on construction of a new roof and concrete floor before reopening in November, and Eat My Catfish in the Breckenridge Village Shopping Center, which reopened earlier this year. Scott said the city has also approved an architect and contractor to build a new Fire Station No. 9.

People are using Murray Park again, and the city held a community engagement hearing in late February to solicit residents' opinions on how to begin constructionat Reservoir Park, the mayor said.

Little Rock officials are also pursuing grants and partnerships with other organizations to plant more trees in affected areas. Kate Spontak, a member of Central Arkansas Master Naturalists and the leader of the Tree Replacement Project, has estimated that at least 20,000 trees were destroyed across the region.

Despite the progress Scott acknowledged that many people are still negotiating with their insurance companies to get the money necessary to rebuild.

The city also raised close to $600,000 through the Little Rock Cares program, which was set up to accept donations toward the relief effort, he said. Heart of Arkansas United Way was tasked with coordinating the distribution of the funds.

In total, $425,000 was distributed to 258 applicants from that funding, with an average award of $1,647.29, Mollie Palmer, vice president of communication and engagement at the organization, said in an email in December. According to Palmer, all grants have been paid. Visa gift cards were also distributed to 137 applicants as part of their award. The gift cards' total value was $30,000, Palmer said.

Each year on average, Arkansas experiences a crisis that rises to the level of federal disaster, said A.J. Gary, director of the state Division of Emergency Management. The speed of progress in the wake of such disasters is rarely even; some disasters that happened a decade ago are still in the recovery process, according to the director.

"Here's one of the things about the recovery process: A storm hits, we're responding, all the local, all the jurisdictions are responding," he said. "That happens really quick. Recovery takes a longer period of time."

Fortunately, Gary said the response and recovery phases began quickly last year. He credited the division's partnerships with local emergency managers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency team dispatched from the agency's Region Six headquarters in Denton, Texas, and volunteer organizations as critical to the speed of their actions.

"When something happens, everybody is working together," he said. "We have one goal in this, and that's to take care of our citizens, and everybody really strives to do that."

Across the state, the March 31 storms caused an estimated $70 million to $90 million in public infrastructure damage, according to figures provided by the Emergency Management Division. FEMA so far has approved $49,062,397 in reimbursement for the damage, including $27,996,018 that has been paid out by the state Emergency Management Division.

In addition, a total of 9,531 total individual assistance applicants were approved by FEMA, with the agency paying out $9,726,583 to homeowners and renters to date.

The Small Business Administration approved 347 loans to homeowners and renters, for a total of $21,234,100. Business owners saw 30 loans approved for $2,301,000.

Gary said it's important after disasters for communities to seek to arrive at a "new normal."

"You're not going to be back to normal, but (we're) trying to get back to a new normal as quick as we can," he said.


Gary said that the division is working with the state to consider the establishment of standing contracts with companies that handle debris removal. The move would aim to speed cleanup in the aftermath of future disasters.

The proposal falls under the division's goal of preparing, responding, recovering and mitigating disasters. That process, from preparation to mitigation, forms a circle, according to Gary.

"You plan for an event, you prepare for that event, the event happens, you respond, you recover, you mitigate it, and then you start planning and preparing for the next event," he said. "So it's just a continuous cycle."

Gary also urged residents and business owners to continue sharpening their own disaster preparedness measures. People should make sure they have a safe place for important documents, such as birth certificates, and have family communication plans so that members know how to reach one another in the event of a crisis. Finally, he urged residents to make sure they have good insurance that remains up to date.

"We've seen a lot of people devastated because they didn't have either enough insurance or they didn't have insurance at all," he said.

The Odekirks' insurance helped them to rebuild their house so they can continue living in the same place where they've spent the past three decades. While the tornado destroyed the reason they moved into their neighborhood in the first place -- the forest around them -- they now console themselves with new pleasures.

"Oh, we have beautiful sunrises," Véronique said.

"Yeah, we can see the sunrise," her husband added.

"We never saw that before. So look up. Don't look down."

[Read more on the March 31, 2023 tornadoes]

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