Arkansas has battled numerous disasters, most of them being the natural variety: residual storms from Hurricane Katrina, ice storms, flooding that shut down the interstate, even earthquakes. But it seems the most common threat would be tornados. Sunday, April 27, the AAMSCO team was at dinner after a day of meetings in Orlando, FL. We were vaguely aware that the state was expecting some turbulent weather, so it was not a huge surprise when our phones started signaling storm warnings from Little Rock television network affiliates. Alerts jumped quickly from Thunderstorm Warnings to Tornado Warnings. We called to check on family then began checking social media sites to find friends were scrambling to get to their safe places and warning others who might be in the storm’s path.
Shannon Riordan and Tiffany Pressler work closely with state and local emergency management teams and have promoted the Salamander system extensively. Because of their involvement, they stayed up a large part of Sunday night assessing needs and communicating with our team members still in Arkansas.
Most of the area affected was in Faulkner County. The Office of Emergency Management for that county had just completed Salamander training the Thursday before the storm hit. The Salamander kits allow the OEM to track volunteers. Every hour a volunteer gives is matched with in-kind funds from FEMA making documentation crucial. Proper documentation allows faster reimbursement to the affected areas. Badging volunteers also brings a safety element to the process because there is a clearer picture of where people are working. It allowed for distributing volunteers more evenly as well.
Again, we were a bit disconnected being at the meeting. Stories were being relayed to us about how many people were killed and how many homes destroyed. We heard a small town mayor was ignoring emergency managers and wanted to use sign-in sheets versus computer registration which would adversely affect FEMA reimbursements. Upon our return to Arkansas, Riordan and Pressler immediately jumped into action, coordinating with the emergency managers and volunteer coordinators to begin recovery efforts.
Faulkner county towns Mayflower and Vilonia sustained the most damage. Vilonia was hit by a tornado just 3 years ago, so the town was still recovering, only to be knocked down again, losing, among other things, a just-completed school building that was slated to be opening this fall. The communities of Roland and Paron in western Pulaski county were also slammed. There are fewer people in these areas so less damage to be done, but what was done was severe. All areas have since been declared disaster areas.
Sixteen people were killed. Around 855 homes sustained damage, 418 were destroyed. Many businesses were also damaged or destroyed. County Judge Allen Dodson recapped the path of the storm and made note of the fact that it knocked out 85% of Vilonia’s retail tax base.
Our team met in the Conway area 6am Saturday, May 3 and dispatched to our registration areas. Around 4600 volunteers were badged on Saturday and 1200 more on Sunday. Seven registration stations were set up: 2 in Mayflower, 2 at Beryl Baptist Church in Vilonia, 1 at First Baptist Church Vilonia and 2 in Conway. Volunteer clean-up efforts continue, but full recovery is not expected for quite some time.