Many Vilonia residents, Tuesday, were reflecting on the tornado that devastated the city three years ago as well as the recent one.
Delivering water and supplies around town, Debbie Martin of the Vilonia Fire Department, pointed out houses that were hit in 2011, repaired and hit again Sunday night. She also talked about the recent devastation as she drove from street to street talking with residents and volunteers encouraging them to be safe, wear protective eye gear, gloves and to not take chances.
Between stops, she randomly shared many pieces of information sometimes changing from one subject to another as the thoughts came to mind.
“This tornado went an eighth of a mile east of the one last year,” she said. “But in Black Oak, it took the same path.”
Her daughter and son in law, Nick and Samantha Pettingill, live in Black Oak Addition, just outside the city limits, and they lost everything they owned. The mobile home where they were living was demolished. Some of her daughter’s clothing, Martin said, was “cut into a tree and a king size mattress was wrapped around a tree so tight that it couldn’t be taken down.” The couple dashed across the road, with their cats, to a cellar, Martin said, that was packed with many of the neighbors, dogs and cats which probably saved all of their lives.
“I went over there when stuff was still falling out of the sky to check on them,” Martin said. “I turned the corner and I almost smacked into the side of a mobile home that was right in the road.”
Going up and down streets, some were unrecognizable with street signs missing and houses completely gone. Driving down Cemetery Street, she said, it was hit hard. The 17 or so houses located there are tangled messes or for the most part missing. There were twisted metal power poles.
On Vilanco, Gunter’s Veterans Home was damaged. Owner Carroll Gunter said the 10 or so veterans living there were in the basement of Centerpoint Freewill Baptist Church. They have been taken to the VA Hospital in Little Rock where they will remain until repairs can be made, he said. When it happened he was in New Mexico visiting his ailing mother suffering with cancer. His house was destroyed also. His wife Mica and their six children were also in the basement at the church.
After sitting quietly for a few minutes, she shared that she works at Fred’s. One of her fellow employees, a 22-year-old, and his step mother, she said, was killed in the tornado. She said he was texting the store telling employees to take cover until just minutes before he lost his life.
A stop at the house of resident Susan Cole, her house was destroyed. She was working alongside her family and volunteers in the yard. In the distance, one could view the destruction that was the new Intermediate School which was almost completed and ready to move in before it was destroyed by the tornado. Cole said when the tornado struck, she was in the cellar with eight people and four dogs. She talked about the sounds and referred to it as a “harrowing experience.” She was dealing with her loss but, she said, she also had damage at Centennial Bank in Vilonia where she serves as the manager. On a lighter note, she said, the bank was operational by Tuesday morning.
Changing gear, Martin said, at her house, the power is off and she has been told not to expect any until May 2. But, in 2011, she said, her power was off nine days. Things, she said, are flowing a little faster than in 2011.
“Maybe it is experience,” she said. “I hate that I can say that. The last time it took us a couple of days to see what we needed done and to figure out how to do it. I really don’t feel good that I can say this but this time, we knew what we needed and how to get it done.”
On the bypass, she pointed to the site of where a mobile park was wiped away and life was lost and cars were wrapped around trees on Coker Road and there was an empty slab where a mobile sat. The mobile home was damaged in the 2011 tornado. After several attempts the occupant, she said, just had got the roof fixed where it didn’t leak. On that note, she said, the central fire department sustained damage as well as the windshield was shattered in the department’s brand new tanker. As well, the doors were blown off the bays.
North Marshall, she said, didn’t get it like last time but South Marshall was demolished. “It got S. Coker, Rocky Point, and Naylor.”
People were trapped, she said, in the Pentecostal New Life Church and was rescued by the department. “They were having services,” she added.
She pointed to an empty place where, the 2011 tornado destroyed a house belonging to a Vietnam veteran who was in a wheelchair. “We had to hold the roof off while he got out,” she said.
The devastation, Martin said, this time, is almost too much for her to handle. “I don’t want to do this but I have to. It’s what we do at the fire department.”
At the fire department, Linda Millard of Hot Springs was also volunteering. She said she is hearing many awe inspiring stories. She was told by emergency workers that one man was killed while protecting his children. He had his arms around them, she said, and they survived.
“He gave the ultimate to protect them,” she added.
One thing she said she specifically has noticed is that residents, with a slip of the tongue, are referring to the 2011 tornado as happening last year.
“Referring to the 2011 tornado, they are telling me what they did last year,” she said. “It happened three years ago but it is still so fresh on their minds like it happened last year. That is still a wound that hasn’t healed.”
Millard said she and her husband, Darryl, will move to the city when they sell their house to be close to their son Dave Poston and his family. Poston and his wife Amy are members of the fire department. She said she has witnessed the efficiency of the fire department as well as watched the close knit community pulling together.
“We are anxious to be a part of it,” she said.