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Archive for Sunday, May 4, 2008

Arkansas copes again with disaster

26 people have died in storms since February

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, right, speaks with Charlene Maders next to her tornado-damaged home Saturday in Center Ridge, Ark. Smoke rose from burning heaps of wreckage as residents of rural Arkansas cleaned up what was left of their homes after deadly tornadoes hit a state that has been plagued by severe weather this year.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, right, speaks with Charlene Maders next to her tornado-damaged home Saturday in Center Ridge, Ark. Smoke rose from burning heaps of wreckage as residents of rural Arkansas cleaned up what was left of their homes after deadly tornadoes hit a state that has been plagued by severe weather this year.

May 4, 2008

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— Looking over yet another storm-damaged community in Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe repeatedly promised government help.

Standing before the shell of what was once a home, he paused a moment for reflection.

"It's a cumulative disaster, I guess," Beebe said.

Week after week since February, television screens in Arkansas have flashed warnings of floods and tornadoes. At least 26 people have died from violent storms, most in rural areas where rice grows and livestock graze on tall grass.

Six of those who died in storms Friday lived among the rolling hills and piney woods of central Arkansas.

In between the storms, Arkansas has seen a foot of snow, a foot of rain, flash flooding and long-standing river flooding this year. At least five people died in the floods.

Still, each new disaster brings new stories of survival and sacrifice, like the weeping single mother offering a child-support check to her county for disaster relief.

"She was crying and told me she had to do it," said Van Buren County Sheriff Scott Bradley.

In that county, near Damascus, only a chimney, a bathroom wall, and a bathtub that had served as a storm shelter remained Saturday from what had been Shelia Massey's home.

Massey said she, her daughter, and Massey's three grandsons, ages 2 weeks, 2, and 4, ran to the bathroom when they got word of Friday's storm. The boys and their mother slumped down in the tub, covered by sofa cushions, while Massey held on to the outside.

Massey said she felt the house shake and the bathtub begin to move as the storm hit. A wall fell on them, but instead of causing injury it became a protective barrier from other blows.

"God's hand came down and held us there while the rest of the house just blew away," said Massey, 54. "That's all there was to it. The Lord held us there."

A child poking through the rubble found a photograph of Massey's husband, who was not at home when the storms hit Friday. In all, seven people were killed, about 400 homes damaged or destroyed, and electric power and telephone service were knocked out to thousands of customers.

In the 18 counties that reported damage, the recovery task was under way Saturday.

Beebe, who toured damaged areas, added four counties to the disaster list before he set out from Little Rock.

Near Center Ridge in Conway County, he paused briefly to watch a bulldozer shove drywall, bedding and a television set into a burn pile. The governor said President Bush called him Friday night to offer the federal government's full support and to commend him on the state's response so far.

Near Damascus, down U.S. 65 from Massey's house, parishioners at Southside Baptist Church salvaged what was left of their old sanctuary and their new church, still under construction.

Men backed pickup trucks up to the front door of the old church and loaded them with boxes filled with red-leather hymnals. A darkened hallway led to the new sanctuary, where the storms had collapsed the roof, bending its steel beams like sipping straws.

Officials tried to offer comfort. U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., and a staff member shook hands with volunteers cleaning the church. National Weather Service teams were dispatched in the early morning to resume their tornado count, and state emergency-management personnel helped county officials with the damage assessments.

Beebe acknowledged that state officials have become adept at responding to disasters since tornadoes killed 13 Arkansans on Feb. 5.

"It never gets any easier," Beebe said.

After walking past mud-stained clothes drying on an uprooted tree, Beebe spoke with Bobby Rose, 43, who was helping clean up after Friday's storm. The governor offered his condolences to residents of the rural neighborhood, and Rose remained upbeat.

"This is Arkansas," Rose said. "We hold up."

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