VILONIA — The city of Vilonia Tuesday morning was full of volunteers — some familiar faces — a few new ones. They were manning chainsaws, passing out food and bottled water, directing traffic and conducting welfare checks.
Safety officer Debbie Martin of the Vilonia Fire Department, was doing a little of all. Riding around in the fire department’s all-terrain vehicle, Martin spent a few morning hours checking on many elderly residents.
“I know most of these people by name,” she added. Some she waved at, some she stopped to visit. Some shared a hug. She told all “if you need anything, let us (the fire department) know.”
“I worry especially about the elderly,” she said, as she made her way along a one-mile or so stretch inside the city limits that, she said, was perhaps hit the worst. Bricks appeared to be ripped off houses, cars were flipped and utility poles were splintered along the way.
She pointed out houses were completely gone. A survey of the businesses, she pointed out, that in spite of some earlier reports Kieth’s Service Station was standing and actually in operation with gas pumps functioning. However, the old Kieth’s across the street wasn’t as lucky and received damage. The Citgo service station had roof damage and a sign blown down. The roof of the Dinner Bell was hit. Big Ben’s resturant also had visible roof damage. As well, JB Hardware and Harps grocery store were hit. Power lines were still draped across portions of the Harps parking lot. Insulation was torn from one area Centennial Bank. While some may have received damage, it appeared all the churches remained standing.
A couple of overturned semi-trailer rigs were visible. Cereal from one lay spilled along the roadway.
Martin detailed Monday night’s events as they unfolded. The sirens were sounded about 30 minutes before the tornado hit.
“That saved lives,” she surmised. “It came through about the area of 1081 Main St.”
Less than five minutes after the tornado, which occurred about 7:30 p.m., the fire department went to work and worked through most of the night.
Firefighters cleared roadways, checked on those with substantial damage and transported some to safety. One elderly man, she said, was transported to the Senior Citizens Center after his house was damaged. A couple of firefighters had to go back and search for his medicines in the dark,” she said. “He had to have them.”
She pointed to a spot of land where one mobile home sat before the tornado. Occupied by an elderly woman, she said, “No parts of that trailer can be found. We were worried about her, but she’s okay. She had gotten in a storm cellar.”
Riding along the way, several waved Martin down including volunteers, emergency workers and firefighters. It was her job, she said, to transport water and food to those working in the field as well as pass along information. Many times, Debbie Martin’s eyes filled with tears as she surveyed the damage.
“I know this could have been a lot worse but it is still heart-wrenching,” she said.
A lifetime resident of Vilonia, Martin has served as the safety officer for the fire department for the past 11 years. As far as performing duties during a time of disaster, Martin said that is what she and her fellow firefighters train for many hours in order to do properly. That, she said, is how they save lives. As far as her dedication, she said, she may be no more dedicated than the rest of her peers but describing her passion, she said she is very dedicated to Vilonia and the residents.
“I promised my grandmother (Vera Mobbs) before she died that I would help to take care of the community,” Martin said. “That’s what I’m trying to do—and the rest of the firefighters are also.”