Recovery From Tornado Taking Shape in Mena, Ark.

May 21, 2009

The work to repair damage from last month’s tornado in Mena, Ark., has brought a building boom to the western Arkansas city at a time when most construction crews are feeling the effects of the recession.

Three people were killed and dozens were injured in the April 9 storms. Hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Since then, builders have been demolishing what can’t be repaired and working to restore other structures to their pre-storm functions.

As many as 300 construction companies and contractors have operated in Mena since the storms, according to a list of registered temporary vendors the city keeps.

Nicholas Piper, president of River Bend Construction in Van Buren, told the Southwest Times Record his company is putting on four or five roofs daily. The company opened an office in downtown Mena so sales people would have a place to work.

Piper says he’s running four 12-person crews, 10 field representatives and has other support personnel. In all, he has between 60 and 70 people working. He said many would be idle now were it not for the work in Mena.

“Look at the economy and the recession. Even in the Fort Smith area, there’s still some hailstorm damage which hasn’t been repaired yet. We’re providing homeowners a service,” Piper said.

The out-of-town workers are putting money back into the local economy.

Marty Harvey, owner and general manager of Limetree Inn in Mena, said occupancy at his 78-room motel on U.S. 71 is up about 20-30 percent from a year ago. He said recovery workers are responsible for the increase. The motel sustained only minor storm damage.

Harvey said he has had to hire more housekeeping staff.

Coast to Coast hardware store in downtown Mena has enjoyed increased sales, with customers buying repair supplies, owner Jim Abbott said. But he said he expects demand to fall back to normal soon as recovery work is completed.

Greg Goss, Mena Chamber of Commerce president, said some small businesses that were damaged still are not operating, but most of the town’s major employers are up and running.

Brodix Inc., a manufacturer of cylinder heads, is in production.

“We had very little down time,” said J.V. Brotherton, company president. “The city did well, and we’re doing all right.”

Production stopped for two weeks at U.S. Motors, a business of St. Louis-based Emerson Motor Technology and a maker of large industrial motors. The factory’s roof and walls were damaged. The plant employs about 370 people, but they did not miss a paycheck, company spokesman Mark Polzin said.

“Everybody got paid for that period of time, and a good number were at the plant helping in the cleanup and restoration,” he said. “We also had help from several other Emerson facilities in the Midwest, a Batesville plant, and personnel from Paragould came in to help out. All the barriers were broken down, and everybody came in to help.”

Temporary repairs were made to get the plant running, with permanent work still being planned.

Goss said the storm has changed the residential housing market. Rental property became scarce after the storm, but some turnover has started since people have begun moving back into their homes.

“The biggest impact is in residential housing,” Goss said. “(The tornado) affected more homes than businesses. It’ll be several years before it really recovers.”

Information from: Southwest Times Record,

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