Cleanup Begins After Storms Demolish Scores of Ark. Homes

April 5, 2006

Cheryl Ward stood next to her demolished house in Marmaduke, Ark., and put things in perspective.

“None of this means anything when you’ve got one kid and your kid is safe,” she said.

Nearly two-thirds of Ward’s home collapsed when it was hit during Sunday night’s storms. Ward, 45, said that she was out of town when the storm hit, but her son Justin was at the house with his girlfriend.

Justin Ward, 18, and his girlfriend went to a storm shelter. He later called his mother to say they were OK, but that the house was gone.

Cheryl Ward said that the storm shelter was built with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with many others in Marmaduke, after tornadoes struck the town in 1997.

“If it hadn’t been for that there’d be a lot of people gone today,” Ward said.

No one was killed in Arkansas by the storms that eventually swept out of the state and into Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. Authorities say 23 people died in Tennessee, three in Missouri, and one in Illinois.

The violent weather injured dozens of Arkansans and destroyed numerous homes and businesses. Gov. Mike Huckabee authorized the National Guard to help clean up Marmaduke and declared emergencies in Conway, Cross, Fulton, Greene, Hot Spring, Randolph and White counties because of the storms. The declaration will allow residents of those counties to seek state aid in coping with storm damage.

A news release from the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management said the governor and ADEM would evaluate the damages to see if they would be warranted in seeking a federal emergency declaration. Such a declaration would make federal disaster aid available to the affected areas.

Huckabee planned to tour the hardest-hit areas April 4.

Logan Hawley, 16, of Marmaduke said he was at his basketball coach’s house when the storm bore down on them. So Hawley, his coach and four others made a break for it, trying to drive to a tornado shelter at a church downtown.

“We couldn’t see anything,” Hawley said Monday in a Marmaduke neighborhood reduced to rubble in Sunday’s storm. “It was just brown in front of us.”

The car crashed at an intersection, so the six people inside had no choice but to sit terrified as the tornado passed through.

“I just closed my eyes and hoped it was a dream,” Hawley said.

Hawley remembers riding across a field trying to beat the tornado, which he and friend Colton Carr recalled was about 500 yards away when they fled the house. The brick house belongs to Hawley’s coach, Shane Robinson. It had its top floor ripped away – and the front had a gaping hole in it with debris spilling out onto the lawn.

Brick shells were all that remained at some houses, while corrugated metal used as roofing stood draped around several trees. At the Marmaduke High School baseball field, the outfield fence and backstop were partially collapsed while big branches sat across the outfield.

The storm rolled railroad cars at the American Railcar Industries Inc. plant onto their sides, several feet from the nearest track. The company said in a statement from its headquarters at St. Charles, Mo., that it had shut down the Marmaduke plant while assessing damage. It said it was insured for property damage and for business interruptions.

Brad Shewmaker, 23, was in his father-in-law’s house – he received a half-hour’s notice from forecasters. The house lost its roof, but six occupants were safe in a storm cellar installed after a March 1, 1997, tornado here.

Shewmaker said he had not realized how much the air pressure drops when a tornado passes.

“That was when we knew it was coming over, when your ears start popping,” Shewmaker said. “None of this means anything when you’ve got one kid and your kid is safe.”

Emergency officials canvassed the town to make sure everyone was safe, but three people were unaccounted for Monday afternoon. “They have cadaver dogs up there but still haven’t found anything,” said acting fire commander Chris Franks.

To the south, Cross County Sheriff Ronnie Baldwin said a storm that passed south of Wynne had caused “millions and millions of dollars” of damage.

“Right now we’ve got an estimate of 31 homes and mobile homes destroyed, 44 more damaged,” Baldwin said, and about 25 major farm buildings were damaged. But there was still something to be thankful for.

“What injuries we did have were minor injuries and only five of those,” he said.

Jesse Mason, who works in construction, said his home had roof damage but otherwise held together while he rode out the storm in a bathroom. He had sent neighbors and family members to a community shelter as the funnel approached, but re-entered the house to retrieve a dog.

He was in the process of remodeling the house.

“I did a pretty good job. I make ’em solid,” he said with a laugh. “I think it lifted a little bit, but it didn’t move.”

The weather service said Monday that a survey in White County traced a 6.3-mile long path of a tornado that touched down in a rural area north of Searcy, destroying two mobile homes and damaging several other houses, buildings and businesses. The agency said the tornado was rated as an F-2 on the Fujita scale – which runs from F-0 through F-5 – with winds estimated at 140 mph.

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