It was early Sunday evening and Kecia Alverson, her two children and husband were sitting down to dinner on Plantation Drive in Mayflower.
Before they could finish dinner, the house was struck by a violent storm. The glass in the windows was breaking and the house was shaking. The children were, according to Alverson, freaking out.
All four members of the family crowded into a tiny hallway closet. A few minutes later, it was over.
“Thank God for tiny little closets,” Alverson said Monday morning. Alverson, formerly Kecia Hardwicke of Paris, is the daughter of Bryan and Sandra Hardwicke of Paris.
A few blocks from Alverson’s home in Mayflower’s River Plantation subdivision, Denise Clayton, formerly Denise Schluterman, daughter of Harold (Peewee) and Alice Schluterman of Paris, was also crowded into a closet with her husband Phil. They also survived the storm, according to Harold (Pewee) Schluterman.
They were all lucky. The tornado was most powerful and deadly tornado to strike in the U.S. this year. The twister also struck Vilonia, only a few miles away, Sunday. The tornado devastated large parts of both communities and killed at least 14 people.
Alverson said there was roof damage, broken windows and damage to the garage doors of her home. Peewee Schluterman said his daughter’s house suffered window and roof damage and the garage was blown away.
Around 9 p.m. Sunday, the subdivision was evacuated because of a ruptured gas line. Alverson and her family went to a motel in Maumelle. Schluterman said his daughter and son-in-law sought refuge in a motel in Conway.
Monday morning, Alverson and her two children — Izzy Hughes, 15, and Tate Miner, nine — and husband Shandel returned home.
“It’s like a war zone out here,” she said. “We’re lucky, but if we’d lived two houses down the block it could have been much worse. My house is still standing, but a lot are much worse. It’s bad, really bad.
“It’s absolutely devastation,” she said. “Devastation is the word I would use.”
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management said Monday that 10 people were confirmed dead in Faulkner County, three in Pulaski County and one in White County.
Oklahoma authorities reported that one person was killed in Quapaw in northeastern Oklahoma in a separate tornado Sunday.
Conway Regional Medical Center said Monday it had treated about 100 people injured in the severe weather. Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock had treated 18 people, not necessarily all children, with storm-related injuries, said spokeswoman Hillary DeMillo.
“There are teams out there doing assessments as we speak, but pretty much most of the damage (in Central Arkansas) was around the Mayflower and Vilonia area,” Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Kathy Wright said.
In Mayflower on Monday, members of Lifeline Church on Interstate 40 were sifting through the rubble of their church building for salvageable items. A sign hanging on a broken portion of a wall left standing read “PRAY.”
“We’ve been wanting to build a new building for a long time,” said Josh Hahn, the church’s music leader. “It’s time to do that.”
At the nearby Mayflower RV dealership, recreational vehicles lay scattered, broken and in some places piled atop each other. Trees in the area were stripped of leaves and most of their branches.
Gov. Mike Beebe has issued a disaster declaration for Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties, spokesman Matt DeCample said Monday. DeCample said the governor would request a federal disaster declaration as well.
Beebe toured storm-damaged areas Monday. President Obama told Beebe in a phone call Monday he was sending Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Arkansas to ensure the state receives appropriate federal resources.
The National Weather Service said a tornado apparently touched down southwest of Ferndale in western Pulaski County and then moved northeast across Faulkner County and into western White County. After traveling about 40 miles it appeared to weaken near El Paso in White County, but then it “spun back up,” meteorologist Tabitha Clarke said.
Tornado damage also was reported in White, Independence and Jackson counties. Meteorologist John Robinson, who was surveying the damage Monday, said the path of destruction was about 80 miles long, but he did not yet know whether it was a single tornado that traveled all 80 miles or two tornadoes that traveled 40 miles each.
Robinson said the widest part of the damage path he had seen by late Monday afternoon was three-quarters of a mile across.
The tornado that tore through Faulkner County appeared to be at least an EF 3, Robinson said. An EF 3 tornado is one with winds between 136 mph and 165 mph. Robinson said he did not expect the National Weather Service to assign a rating to the tornado until after viewing the damage from an airplane on a flight scheduled for Wednesday.
Friday was the third anniversary of a tornado that killed four people in Vilonia and leveled part of the town. That tornado was classified as an EF2.
After the tornado crossed Interstate 40 in the Mayflower area, vehicles were left strewn across the roadway, according to the Arkansas State Police.
“There were approximately 30 vehicles over a four-mile stretch that had to be checked one by one,” ASP spokesman Bill Sadler said. “State troopers moved from one vehicle to another. It was everything from commercial truck carriers to sedans with families. There were some injuries, but I have not been advised of any fatalities in that particular stretch.”
It took about an hour and a half to get one lane of I-40 open in each direction and about another hour to get all four lanes open, Sadler said.
The National Weather Service also said large hail was reported Sunday in parts of Baxter, Pope, Scott and Searcy counties and that more than 5 inches of rain fell within a 24-hour period in parts of Independence, Jackson, Sharp, Clay, Randolph and Izard counties. There was no damage reported in Logan County, according to authorities.
The state Game and Fish Commission said its clubhouse, dog training facilities and shed at the Camp Robinson Special Use Area in Faulkner County were destroyed in the tornado. The agency said its Disaster Response Team and local wildlife officers were assisting other agencies Monday in responding to the disaster.
The Arkansas National Guard said 60 of its members had been called to active duty to assist with the response to the storm and that it was providing a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter to search for survivors. The Guard also said one of its members, who was not immediately identified, was among the people killed when the tornado hit Vilonia.
The Arkansas State Police said it provided a helicopter equipped with an infrared camera to help with the search for survivors Sunday night.
The Texas Department of Emergency Management also sent personnel and equipment to Arkansas on Monday to aid in rescue efforts, at the request of FEMA.
The American Red Cross said it was operating six emergency shelters in Central Arkansas, three of them in Conway, two in Vilonia and one in Mayflower. People also could drop off donations of food, clothing and water at the shelters.
As she surveyed the damage around her home Monday morning, Alverson was also counting her blessings.
“Our house is okay,” she said. “We have windows out and the garage is damaged. We’ll probably go back to the motel tonight. We were very lucky but a lot of people weren’t.”
(The Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock supplied information used in this report.)