EF-3 tornado rips through Jonesboro

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

JONESBORO In an instant, social distancing was replaced with hugs and shared tears of both relief and sorrow.

It seems inconceivable to consider there to be an "ideal" time for a devastating tornado, the kind of once-a-generation or even once-in-a-lifetime storm that tears apart and scatters homes, vehicles and businesses.

Yet, that is precisely what residents of Jonesboro were reduced to ponder over the weekend. While an EF-3 tornado of winds roughly 140 miles per hour ripped through part of the city's busiest commercial districts, casualties were limited due to the city already heeding guidelines in place to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus continually scratching and clawing its way throughout the entire country.

In fact, the storm did not claim a single life, despite leaving a path of destruction that left many scratching their heads, wondering how such a sight could not involve fatality. All told, 22 injuries were reported, with only two requiring hospital care and none in critical condition.

Many businesses in Jonesboro were closed in accordance with state health department guidelines issued less than two weeks ago by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Restaurants within the state had closed their dining areas and served only take-out or drive-through orders.

The Mall at Turtle Creek, routinely packed with shoppers on a Saturday afternoon, had only a fraction of its normal Saturday afternoon traffic. And that, Jonesboro and Craighead County officials say, is the silver lining in the brutal clouds that tossed vehicles around like matchbox cars and flattened some buildings while ripping the roofs off of others.

"Casualties could be so much worse than what we've seen," said Craighead County Sheriff Marty Boyd. "We're very fortunate."

A couple minutes before 5 p.m. Saturday, a tornado touched down on the south side of Jonesboro.

It quickly doubled in size and raced through an area of Caraway Road damaging the post office located near there and obliterating a tire shop.

While some reached for their phones to document the storm with pictures and videos, the twister continued at nearly 40 miles per hour through the city. It indiscriminately batted vehicles around while tearing away at the foundations of several businesses.

By the time it reached the Mall at Turtle Creek, it had grown to full strength as it bore down on the mostly vacant structure.

Only "essential businesses with exterior-facing entrances" were open, according to the mall's website. Within seconds, Barnes and Noble had no roof and other parts of the mall were crushed. In all, officials estimated two-thirds of the mall were a total loss.

From there, the tornado raced through the other side of that business district, laying waste to hangars at the city airport. The Camfil Air Pollution Control manufacturing plant was also a total loss after a fire and gas leak sprang from the storm's assault.

As the city's 33 storm sirens blared, the twister roared through several neighborhoods as it quickly moved to the Farville curve and raced toward Brookland. Along the way, it derailed a train in some cases tossing the cars away and leaving just the wheels on the track.

More homes and businesses were destroyed along the Farville curve on Arkansas 49 near Brookland. By the time the winds calmed, roughly 20 homes in Brookland were destroyed along with "varying level of structural damage," according to Craighead County Judge Marvin Day.

When the chaos stopped, residents slowly emerged from their safe areas to see the damage. Instinct demanded they hug over seeing one another uninjured.

Social distancing was an afterthought to many shocked residents as they took in the destruction.

It was hours later that Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin reminded those assembled along the tornado's route to remember the virus that had already changed life for so many people in his city.

"Even though we've had the tornado come through Jonesboro, we are still under Covid-19," the mayor said. "And we want to do everything we can ... in keeping the distance on that."

The damage is still being assessed this week. According to the Red Cross on Monday, 80 percent of the tornado's destruction had been calculated: 83 homes were completely destroyed in Jonesboro, with 66 more suffering major damage and 309 more withstanding minor damage. Only 20 homes in the affected area were entirely unscathed by the twister.

Several first responders from throughout the state raced to Jonesboro some on their way before the tornado destroyed its first building.

Blytheville Police Department sent a unit with four officers.

Perrin announced a 7 p.m. curfew less than two hours after the storm. The Arkansas National Guard and law enforcement agencies from other cities and counties arrived to help enforce the curfew while Jonesboro authorities went door to door checking on residents in the affected areas.

"JPD personnel will be in place all over town to enforce curfew," read a statement by the city's police department. "No one should be on the streets unless they are on their way to or from work."

Soon, volunteers flooded the city offering everything from manual labor to food and drinks for those working on the rescue effort.

The county Emergency Management Agency established a command post near the mall and quickly began coordinating the many authorities and volunteers on hand to help.

As the rescue effort concluded and recovery work began, the curfew has been limited. As of Tuesday, the curfew had been reduced to 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. as more roads entering the city were slowly reopened for traffic.

While authorities said the storm brought out the best of Jonesboro, Day cautioned the worst of society also was on hand.

"One of the biggest issues that we've already seen here, unfortunately, is there's a lot of people here out to scam you and do improper things," the county judge said, specifying that many already had been reported as attempting to get payment for cleanup and recovery without holding the required city permit to conduct such business. "Make sure if someone is trying to do work for you, they have a city privilege license."

But authorities unanimously praised residents and visitors for their relentless, often overwhelming, offers to help. And Covid-19 added a layer of concern not experienced here following such a tragedy. A note sent out Monday by Craighead County Judge Assistant Lisa Lawrence urged workers to continue to consider the virus.

"In a traditional disaster, we would not be limiting the numbers of individuals to volunteer at a donation and distribution site," Lawrence wrote. "But we must remember to be safe. Continue to be six feet apart, wash your hands regularly and limit interaction with others."

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro said he was impressed by the team effort underway to get the city through the disaster. "This is what we do day in and day out in Jonesboro," he said. "We all work together."

Day, forced to balance community volunteerism with safety, momentarily lost his composure during a press conference Sunday when asked about residents and authorities rushing to help.

"This is such a great place to live," Day said while trying to hold back tears. "People love each other. It's great," he said before stepping back from the podium to regain himself.