March 11, 1997 Arkadelphia, Arkansas /
Announcement on local Cable TV: Found after Tornado Blue bracelet with white polka dots. To identify jewelry call between 12-3 p.m.
I return to Arkadelphia to find a small Arkansas town destroyed by a tornado. The smell of burnt wood is everywhere. People sport baseball caps that read, ‘ I survived the tornado, March 1st, 1997.’ Amid the piles of rubble and debris you realize that what you thought was the sidewalk is actually the marble floor of a building that is completely gone.
Very few people talk about it. I walk over dead cats and broken glass and notice formidable metal signs doubled up and bent in half. Catbirds sing and call to each other as before as if the horror and destiny of 2 ½ minutes of wind never occurred. “My friend lives up on 6thStreet. His house was directly in the path of the storm. It hit the house next to him, went up over his house and hit the one behind him.”
Cardboard hand lettered sign on white car on someone’s lawn: Do Not Haul
I’m riding around in a pick up truck with David Fowlkes. There is a smell of disbelief, electricity and submission in the air. He is an art student at nearby Henderson State College. I ask him why no one is talking about it, it is only maybe ten days after the tornado hit. “It’s like when your uncle drinks too much at a wedding. You talk about it once but then there it’s a secret you never really dwell on again. Right when it happened, with people screaming and bricks and trees everywhere, that’s all people wanted to do was talk about it. Because it was such a personal loss to everyone.”
David tells me the sky goes putrid green right before and then right after. “Sirens go off to warn people in advance. I got into a Red Cross truck to guide those guys around because all the street signs were down. We had to wear rubber boots because of all of the live power wires underfoot. They called our fraternity at the school, 50 guys, to help rebuild roofs, take furniture and load it onto trucks. Two of the dorms on campus were opened to house victims. “Where else did all the newly homeless people go?” I ask as he drives and drawls on a cigarette. ‘Well, ma’am, shelters and churches. We had one family living with us at the frat for a while, but they lost everything. They were screwed.” “What will they do?” “They moved to Texas.”
We turn the corner and David exhales smoke. “See that big hole? That’s where this huge tree used to be. I saw a kid minutes after it struck covered in mud, holding a box of toys just walking the streets wailing, ‘ My house is gone, my house is gone.’
“It was hot and still the morning of. 2 ½ minutes, 2 miles in circumference. A tornado touches down, goes up, touches down again. Every object in a tornado becomes a bullet. I pulled two by fours, like mini pine needle spears out of the walls. Twenty minutes after it happened you could see roofs in the road and cars in the trees. Oak trees toppled.”
“They found 2 kids and their parents a block away from their home dead and blown into someone else’s attic. Here, see,” David, points to the only peanut brittle place left in town.” Damn, this one is still standing, the other one was better. “ This is Arkansas after all, I think. The place where they drink Dr. Pepper for breakfast.
“Clinton came by Day 3 and that really screwed things up. People weren’t really situated and we needed to put temporary roofs on places immediately. But, once the President came they shut down roads so he could go around and shake hands.”
What about looting? “All the windows in the jewelry store and the bank were blown out. It was pretty tempting for a moment there. I thought, geez, he’s insured and I could just grab a ring but I didn’t. They had the National Guard cover the bank. My buddy is a Guardsman and he had to cover the unpainted furniture store. He pulled one of those pine benches out front and sat there as his post.”
We drive past the brick clock tower. It is the most distinctive landmark in Arkadelphia. “Remember Grady was so keen on keeping the Court House Clock tower from being torn down? Well, now he is for having it demolished. The townspeople are fighting it.” It is the only building that partially remains after my first visit to Arkadelphia in January. “Disney offered the town 30 million to rebuild Main Street if they could use it as a back lot to shoot movies and TV shows. It would be a good thing for the students. They would need artists like me.” David smiles for the first time since I got in the truck. A broad grin.
I turn around to look out the window as we drive past the courthouse. What amazes me that I am looking at a house that was completely blown away and out front the azaleas are alive and in full bloom. Spring is here, the birds continue to chirp and sing and fly around the sky. “Here,” David motions out the window on his side of the truck. “Here’s the Funeral Home. There was a funeral going on when the tornado hit.”
The street signs we pass are hand painted directly onto the concrete sidewalk. The stop signs have been shortened and crudely nailed to two by fours and wedged and supported between two heavy sandbags. “I helped the guy move out of this house, too. We had CNN, NBC, all of the major stations here and some stations I had never heard of. One drove here from Rhode Island. They were nuisances. You couldn’t drive anywhere for all the debris. Here’s Ed’s house. I’d stop but I skipped his class today. This lady, I helped her too. She is a nut about her garden and afterwards her garden was fucked up. Excuse me ma’am, pardon my French.”
We pass by collapsed roofs, broken brick columns, foundations ruined, halves of houses, scattered chairs and bent signs. There is mud everywhere. We see countless forklifts picking up pile after pile after pile of debris. White lace curtains flap in the spring light of windows blown permanently open. Buildings are shifted, fully lifted, and tilted hanging precariously off their axis. I hear the sound of men sawing wood, rebuilding and saving what they can, and again that acrid burning smell of wet wood smoldering.
We drive up 6th Street towards where the trailer park used to be. Starting from the bottom of the hill looking up you can see trampled grass indicating the tornado’s wide path of destruction. “This used to be a storage unit and the top that structure used to be a two story apartment building.” Everything that David points to is missing, vanished.
Further up the road there is a modest community of simple, white houses. Funny how some of these houses have not been touched by destruction at all. And others? We enter what used to be the trailer park. We drive slowly surveying three acres of concrete driveways and grassy plots where the trailers used to stand. “The manager of the park was supposed to by law anchor each one of these.” We look again; out of 100 trailers in the park only one is standing. “Guess which one he anchored?”
David turns the truck around and we slowly pick our way over makeshift roads and head back to Main Street, Arkadelphia. “See those holes in that building there?” David exclaims. “ That’s where wood flew in sideways like spears. And damn, look there. They demolished that house. We spent four days trying to help the owners save it. And look. Those damn insurance agents convinced them to tear it down.”
“After a week I had to stop coming down here and helping. I felt guilty cause every night I went back to a good thing and now these people have nothing.”