Mena, Ark., Recovers From Tornado; 600 Homes Damaged or Destroyed

By | April 13, 2009

Arkansas National Guard soldiers and state prisoner work crews in Mena, Ark., removed debris April 11 while firefighters and volunteers from all over pitched in to help residents recover from a devastating tornado and prepare for a new round of storms forecasted for April 12 and 13.

Polk County Emergency Management Coordinator James Reeves said the most immediate need was to get tarps on hundreds of damaged roofs and to clear ditches of wreckage so rainwater from storms would be able to drain.

The massive effort is helping restore function to the city of 5,700, but some residents are showing the strain they’re under.

“We’re getting a lot of calls (from people who are) physically and mentally breaking down. It’s finally sinking in to them. A lot of people haven’t had sleep in 24 hours. It’s taking a toll,” Reeves said.

Fifty soldiers from the National Guard worked security and on debris removal, and 60 prisoners aided in the removal effort, though not necessarily shoulder-to-shoulder with the troops.

The tornado, with winds estimated at between 136-165 mph, struck Thursday evening, killing three and injuring at least 60. About 600 homes were damaged or destroyed, major employers and government buildings sustained severe damage and the county’s emergency communications center was still inoperable on Saturday. The death toll remained at three.

Reeves said more people were getting hurt in falls and other mishaps as they worked on their homes. Their calls to 911 are being handled by Montgomery County, which relays the information via radio.

Plenty of people are aiding in the recovery effort. Firefighters and sheriff’s deputies from several counties, church groups, charitable organizations and others are playing roles that range from performing stoop labor to distributing food and water.

“With everyone’s help, we’re making good progress,” Reeves said. “I can’t say enough about the outpouring.”

Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said that the scope of the damage was still stunning to consider. A tornado in Dumas in 2007 cut through town, knocking out several businesses and damaging or destroying 150 homes, but equal to only a fraction of the damage in Mena.

“The feeling we get is that (Mena has) the worst residential damage in one town that we’ve seen in two-plus years in the governor’s office,” DeCample said. “For the concentration in one residential town, this has been a big one.”

The recovery effort has a long way to go, but Reeves said electricity has been restored to rural areas and that crews are working to get power to parts of Mena that can accept it.

But most much of the area will be in the dark for a while yet, and Reeves put out a call for people to donate ice chests and more tarps. He said 1,000 tarps had been put to use but there were many more roofs to cover.

“We’re trying to secure everything we can secure,” Reeves said.

Reeves said donations could be brought to the Dallas Avenue Baptist Church, where there is a staging area. The center can accept other donations, too, such as bottled water.

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