Survivors search for belongings amid Ark. tornado wreckage

Published 4:30 am Sunday, May 4, 2008

Smoke rose from burning heaps of wreckage Saturday as residents of rural Arkansas cleaned up what was left of their homes after deadly tornadoes scoured a state that has been plagued by severe weather this year.

All that remained of Shelia Massey’s home were a chimney, a bathroom wall, and a bathtub that was her storm shelter.

“God’s hand was 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.”

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A child poking through the rubble found a photograph of Massey’s husband, who was not at home when the violent weather struck Friday. The storms killed seven people, damaged or destroyed about 400 homes, and knocked out electrical and telephone service for thousands of customers in 18 counties.

Altogether, meteorologists said more than 25 tornadoes may have touched down across middle America late Thursday and early Friday, but Arkansas was the hardest hit.

Down U.S. 65 from Massey’s house, parishioners at Southside Baptist Church salvaged what was left of their old sanctuary and their recently completed new church.

Men backed up pickup trucks to the front door of the old church and loaded up boxes filled with red-leather hymnals. The storm had collapsed the roof of the their new sanctuary, bending its steel beams like sipping straws.

Public officials offered comfort and support. U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., and a staff member shook hands with volunteers cleaning the church, and Gov. Mike Huckabee scheduled a tour of the damaged area.

National Weather Service teams were sent out to survey damage for their count of the tornadoes, and state emergency management workers helped county officials with damage assessments. Arkansas National Guard members were on hand to provide security.

Elsewhere Saturday, the National Weather Service posted tornado watches during the morning for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as an arc of strong thunderstorms rolled across the region.

One line of storms crossing southeastern Louisiana damaged trees and homes. The Weather Service reported 6 inches of rain in parts of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes, with estimates of 10 inches in places, meteorologist Bob Wagner said. Flooding was expected along the Bogue Falaya River at Camp Covington, in St. Tammany, but there was no immediate estimate of how many people lived in the area.

In Arkansas, Massey, like others in rural Van Buren County, learned of the approaching tornado from a friend who lived miles south in the larger town of Perryville and had seen television news reports.

Massey and her daughter ran to the bathroom with Massey’s three grandsons, ages 2 weeks, 2 and 4. 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 provided protection against other debris.

Catastrophic weather has been a recurring event in Arkansas this year, with at least 26 deaths, most occurring in rural communities and on farms far from the nearest warning siren.

Six of those who died Friday resided among the rolling hills and piney woods of central Arkansas. A teenage girl died in the city of Siloam Springs in northwest Arkansas.

A series of storms Feb. 5, some with wind greater than 166 mph, killed 13 people, nearly all in rural areas. There were no fatalities or injuries from a tornado that struck the Little Rock area April 3, but there was another tornado fatality in January.

Arkansas has also seen a foot of snow, a foot of rain and widespread flooding this year. At least five people died in the floods, according to state emergency management spokeswoman Renee Preslar.

“We could use a little bit of a break,” said Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Rickard.

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