I’ve seen it on the news in the United States, and I’ve received messages from friends in the UK, Ireland, and other parts of Europe checking to make sure I’m ok after seeing coverage of the massive tornado to hit Arkansas on April 27.
The tornado was rated a “high-end EF 4,” meaning it was just shy of being an EF 5 (the rarest and most destructive of all tornadoes). To be classified as EF 4, the wind speed is 206 to 260 miles per hour. With it being a high-end EF 4, I imagine the winds were more in the 250-260 mph ballpark. It carved a 3/4 mile wide path of destruction 80 miles across the state, from the southwest to the northeast. The tornado’s path can be seen from satellite images from space. The tornado ended up killing 15 in Arkansas alone, and after seeing first hand the destruction it left in its wake, I’m amazed (and truly thankful) more people weren’t killed. Tornadoes are just part of life in Arkansas in the Spring. You hear about them touching down, destroying a few homes, and within a few days you go on with your normal life, the tornado merely a distant memory. That’s the way it USUALLY works. Not this time.
This tornado had my down in its direct path. The national Weather Channel was announcing for my town to take cover immediately and that Reed Timmer, storm chaser extraordinaire, was chasing the storm that would later produce the tornado…straight for where we live. My family got our dogs, a few cushions and pillows, and took shelter in a small hallway with no windows or outside walls. The safest place we could have been in the house. Keeping up with the storm’s track via the TV blasting loudly in the living room, the local meteorologists noticed that there was a “radar indicated” tornado. We hear this all the time, but it almost always turns out to be nothing more than a wall cloud that never drops a tornado. We still knew it could happen anytime. A few minutes later they said, “That’s not a radar indicated tornado, this thing is on the ground.” They could tell because the weather radar was picking up what’s called a debris ball. That’s when the tornado is on the ground and is so big and kicking up so much large debris it can be seen by satellite and radar technology. Looks like a storm cell with a long hook on it with a circle directly in the hook. That’s when you know it’s a bad one.
They said it was headed toward my town, take shelter NOW, then then everything outside when deathly still. That’s a pretty good sign a tornado is imminent. The lights flickered multiple times, and according to the meteorologists, we had several minutes before the tornado would reach us. Being the curious (and downright stupid) person I sometimes am, I had to get a look. I left the discomfort of the shelter (try cramming 3 people, 4 dogs, and a mass of couch cushions and pillows into a 3 x 7 foot room) to get a look at what was going on outside. It was still and quiet. The only thing I noticed was what I thought was lightning. Then I noticed the lightning wasn’t coming from above me, but from the ground…and it was blue. Then it registered that what I was seeing was transformers blowing and power lines being hit. That’s when I knew this was really serious.
I ran back inside, got back in the “hidey hole” as we southerners call our designated tornado shelter spots, and waited. The power went out. We felt it was about to get ugly. My mom was able to pull up a live stream of the local weather team talking about the storm on her iPhone and much to our relief they said the storm had taken taken a turn and was making a more northeasterly track. It appeared my town would just barely dodge the bullet if the tornado continued on its track. Well, it did just that and once we realized we were in the clear, we emerged from our hiding place and things got real.
Through twitter, I was able to keep up with where the tornado was going and what it was doing. I was seeing things like “Mayflower hit hard,” “3/4 of a mile wide,” and many places I see and shop on a regular basis were gone. I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that these buildings where I shop, these restaurants where I eat, these landmarks I see every day and take for granted…simply weren’t there anymore. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It was unfathomable to me.
Then they said the tornado was headed straight toward the town of Vilonia, which had been badly damaged by a much weaker tornado 3 years–and two days–before. Mayflower was hit hard. The area it hit there missed my home by about 4 miles. What it did to Vilonia, however, was worse. A mass casualty situation was announced and all emergency personnel was called up. The national guard was called up. Most of the deaths happened in Vilonia. The tornado that hit my state April 27 left one of my acquaintances dead and one of my friend’s homes (and her cars and all her belongings) completely destroyed.
My town was as far west as you could go on Interstate 40 for a few days (although at that particular location, I-40 travels North/South for several miles before switching back to East/West). It’s still backed up for miles with people slowing down to look in disbelief at all the devastation. I finally made it to Conway, the town north of where the tornado hit, to run some much needed errands yesterday. I was blown away by what I saw. Here are some instagram videos I took of what can be seen from Interstate 40 east at Mayflower:
This doesn’t even begin to do justice to what these hard-hit areas look like. The thing that struck me most, more than the mangled buildings and cars crushed like soda cans, was something that I couldn’t get on film as it was on the westbound side of the interstate. A business called Mayflower RV took a direct hit by the storm. There were RVs and campers, mangled and in huge piles, strewn for hundreds of yards. I had visited there with my family a few years before looking into purchasing one. We met a nice man who told us about how his home had narrowly missed being hit by the tornado that hit the town of Vilonia the first time in 2011. We were there shopping a few weeks after that tornado occurred. He mentioned how worried they were that the business had been hit that time and were so relieved when it hadn’t. This time, however, they weren’t so lucky.
We had actually just been back there recently looking at campers again, and the very same man helped us look. I couldn’t believe the place was gone. As I drove by, I noticed that someone had forged through the mountain of trees, debris, cars, and campers to place an American flag where the sales building had once been. A symbol to all who passed that they would come come back better than ever, as is the spirit of the people of this country when terrible things like this happen.
The second thing to grab my attention was, right next to Mayflower RV–just to the south–is a vacant, wooded area. I noticed that there was an approximately 200 yard wide swath of trees that had been snapped in half. Right in the middle of the trunk. They weren’t blown completely over, just snapped in half like matchsticks. And these weren’t saplings. They were 50 and 100 year old trees with trunks 2 and 3 feet in circumference. All across the area, the trees that weren’t snapped in half or blown completely down were completely bare. Every leaf stripped from their limbs. Many had pieces of metal wrapped around them, showing the obvious direction the wind was coming from. Photos, mail, and other personal items from the towns hit by the tornado were found 80 and 100 miles away.
The thing that impresses me most is the giving, helpful spirit of people since the tornado hit. People from all over are coming in droves to help clean up the mess, take away all the remains of homes knocked completely off their foundations, cut the trees away that are blocking our roads, and bringing supplies of all kinds to hand out to families who have nothing. It’s amazing the good that people are capable of if they would just reach inside themselves and let it out. Neighbors helping neighbors…strangers helping strangers. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Here’s a look at the footage from CNN just after the storm hit. The reporter was not yet aware of the damage still occurring to his east. He only had preliminary category reports for the tornado based on what had occurred in Mayflower alone.
Help is still needed. If you live in Arkansas, there are countless donation sites. Many churches and hotels are accepting non-perishable food items, water, and other personal items. They are also still desperately in need of people to loan out their chainsaws, tractors, backhoes, and anything else that can help clear out debris on a scale so massive. If you don’t live in Arkansas, you can still help by donating to the Red Cross.
Visit this website ( American Red Cross ) , select Donate Now on the right side of the page. You can be sure your money will be used to help people in Arkansas, as well as Mississippi and Alabama after they were hit by tornadoes on April 28.