Tornado kills three
Posted: Friday, April 10, 2009 10:11 pm
By JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press Writer
MENA, Ark. (AP) — Battered residents of this western Arkansas town waited for day light today to dig out from a “direct hit” by a tornado that killed three people, injured at least 24 and flattened homes and businesses, including a manufacturing plant.
The twister sliced through the town of 5,000 in the Ouachita Mountains around 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The Polk County sheriff described the sky turning green, while the airport manager said darkness fell quickly as the twister crossed the Oklahoma line 10 miles away.
“Me and the dog ran to the bathroom when we saw it on the TV,” said Rick Lanman, the manager of the Mena Airport. “It was here in less than a minute.”
Sirens had warned the community about earlier storms north and south of town. When they sounded a fourth time, “experience was telling me that we were in trouble,” said Lanman, who said he has been through tornadoes before in Oklahoma and Illinois.
Before first light today, a convoy of trucks from electric utilities streamed into Mena. Their flashing yellow lights illuminated downed trees and buildings whose roofs and sides had been ripped away.
Polk County emergency coordinator James Reeves said the community lost at least 10 businesses. City Hall and two churches also were damaged, he said.
“One manufacturing plant is gone,” he said. “It took a direct hit. It’s no longer there.”
The violent weather was part of a system that caused damage throughout the South and parts of the Midwest. The National Weather Service said a woman was injured at Shreveport, La., when a tree fell on her car during a tornado. Twisters also damaged homes east of Vinita and near Muse in Oklahoma and at Crossett in far southern Arkansas, near the Louisiana line.
As the storms moved east, hail and high winds were reported in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Power was out in many parts of the region.
At Mena, one of the victims killed in the storm was found in a collapsed house and one in a Masonic lodge, and another was found in her front yard, Reeves said. The identities of the two women and a man have not been released.
The 24 injured people were being treated at Mena Medical Center. The devastated downtown area was being protected by National Guard troops dispatched by Gov. Mike Beebe.
A curfew was in effect as emergency crews dealt with ruptured gas lines, downed power lines, fallen trees and heavily damaged buildings.
Lanman, who has lived in Mena since the start of 2008, said his terrier-beagle mix, Milo, was agitated when he arrived home from work Thursday. He kept an eye on the weather as a series of storms crossed into western Arkansas from Oklahoma.
“We had one warning for a storm to the north of us and a warning for a storm to the south. We were on the very tip. We were at the right spot I turned on the TV and, sure enough, there it was,” Lanman said.
Sheriff Mike Oglesby, who said some witnesses reported the sky turned green just before the storm hit, planned a door-to-door search at dawn, with firefighters perhaps using chainsaws to help reach isolated areas.
“They’ll have to cut in for us. It’s going to be a long day,” Oglesby told television station KTHV of Little Rock.
The sheriff said five children were in a house that was “basically turned upside down.” Deputies were able to reach the children and take them to a hospital, he said.
Reeves said he had never seen a storm like this hit the tornado-prone region.
“Not in my life time,” he said. “The last tornado we had to hit the city of Mena was in November 1993. This time we had significant structures (hit).”
A state trooper in Mena called for assistance after his patrol car got stuck in the storm, pelted with debris and covered with power lines, state police spokesman Bill Sadler said.
“I’m in the middle of a tornado,” Sadler said the trooper reported.
Published in The Messenger 4.10.09