Before dawn, and before any media was allowed in, police and emergency workers who had been in Vilonia said that much of downtown was “gone.”
There was little exaggeration in this description for about three blocks of downtown Vilonia east of Cemetery Street when first light showed what Sunday night’s tornado did there. It would be unrecognizable to someone not very familiar with the town.
Everywhere along the storm’s path, the worst core of which looked to be about 1,000 feet wide, is devastated. Those trees that are still standing in the path’s center were reduced to bare trunks with stumps of limbs — not one leaf remains. Houses are piles of lumber or brick piled on and strewn about their foundations. Here and there a wall or two may still stand.
The strip mall at Main and Elizabeth Streets is destroyed. The store at the west end was reduced to a bare concrete slab that looked like it had been scrubbed clean, metal and shelving and merchandise and shopping carts and a pickup truck swept by the wind into the northeast corner of what was the store in a pile that could almost be called tidy.
Keith’s Service Center is destroyed. The convenience store part is still mostly standing, but the shop behind it is gone.
Along the Vilonia Bypass, fences and a deep roadside ditch caught small pieces of what the tornado scattered; light switches, a TV remote control, the white wire rack from someone's dishwasher, a blanket, a toddler-sized jacket and broken toys. A stuffed toy dog was stuck on a fencepost and hung just over what could only have been a Christmas stocking. A car was on its side in a field. A woman that was in the car when it was blown off the road is one of the confirmed casualties.
The tornado took a path from Mayflower almost due northwest from the intersection of South Coker Road and the Vilonia bypass, destroying homes on both sides of the bypass there, through to the intersection of Wells and South Marshall Road, destroying a home and farm there, through downtown Vilonia, and on through the neighborhoods of North Church and East Wicker streets before going through the very dense subdivision off Naylor Road just north of Williams Road.
That subdivision is mostly destroyed. There had been 54 houses there Sunday evening. By Sunday night only nine could fairly be said to remain. The rest were piles of debris, most with a car or two in the middle of them where the garage had been. It was hard to tell where one lot ends and another begins.
And everywhere along the path of the storm, people were sifting through debris and clearing downed trees. They were finding pictures, a doll, keepsakes. Very few were crying. Emergency workers were everywhere. Homes and vehicles that had been checked for bodies and trapped survivors were marked with orange sheets of paper and spray paint.
There were the usual strange things that come with tornados showing the curious power of wind. In one home a wall was torn away, leaving behind it a cabinet where small items were undisturbed.
In a large open field between downtown Vilonia and the Naylor Road subdivision was a bare truck chassis, identifiable as a Chevrolet only by its three remaining wheels. A couple hundred yards northwest was the truck’s body, a Suburban SUV rolled into a ball just a little larger than a Volkswagen Beetle.
In the subdivision, a “congratulations” balloon was still floating, tied to a car that’s probably totaled and not ten yards from an upside-down, demolished SUV.
The storm killed eleven people that authorities can confirm; eight in Vilonia and three in Mayflower. Two of them are children. Sheriff Andy Shock was shaken as he talked about these children at the Vilonia Primary School early Monday morning. A school worker said she had been trying to contact “our kids” and their families. They’d contacted or heard most of them were safe, she said.
County officials still aren’t sure how many people are still unaccounted for. Search and rescue teams have been working non-stop since Sunday night. Utility workers said in the early a.m. hours that they could have several leaking natural gas lines shut down by 6 a.m. County Attorney David Hogue said that rescue workers were counting on that. It appeared that they had come through.
Vilonia isn’t “gone,” but much of it is. The town will never look the same. Much of Mayflower is gone too, as is everywhere in between and for some distance beyond the towns. The relief effort will probably take weeks. For dozens of people in the county — maybe hundreds — recovery will take years.