National Weather Service officials said that a weekend tornado that killed 15 people as it ripped through Little Rock’s suburbs was just shy of being rated Arkansas’ first top-of-the-scale storm in 85 years.
A survey team said that, based on damage assessment, the storm was rated as a “high-end” EF4, with winds near the top of the 166-200 mph range. Part of the trouble rating the storm was that flying debris caused a lot of damage, too, officials said.
“We’re trying to rate a tornado based on what the tornado did, rather than how much damage was done by other houses coming apart and then hitting your house,” said John Robinson , the warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service’s North Little Rock office.
After forming near Ferndale, the funnel was on the ground for 41 miles until lifting near El Paso. It then skipped to Pleasant Plains. The weather service said five separate tornadoes covered a distance of 80 miles.
The scene was chaotic after Sunday’s storm: scraps of metal wrapped around tree limbs, brick homes reduced to rubble, bark stripped from trees. Tractor-trailers and heavy-duty SUVs were flipped over and flung like toy cars.
The nation hasn’t had an EF5 storm since last May, when Moore, Okla., was hit by a twister that killed 24 and destroyed 1,000 homes. There have been only 59 EF5 storms since modern record-keeping began in 1950.
Some residents in the hard-hit communities of Vilonia and Mayflower described hearing the storm, comparing it with the roar of a freight train or jet engine. Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland described it as “the loudest grinding noise I’ve ever heard.”
It was difficult to find one Mayflower resident along the Pine Tree Cove area overlooking Lake Conway whose home or property had not sustained major damage – 100-year-old oak trees smashed through their homes, roofs sheared off, decades-old brick homes smashed to bits.
On April 10, 1929, a storm rated at F5 on a previously used scale traveled from south of Batesville to Sneed, north of Newport, and killed 23.
Forecasters now use the Enhanced Fujita scale, which evaluates damage across 28 parameters and, from that data, lets forecasters arrive at approximate wind speeds.
Arkansas was last hit by an EF4 storm Feb. 5, 2008. The Super Tuesday twister, so named because it hit when several states held primaries early in the 2008 political campaign, killed 13 people in a path from Atkins to near the Missouri border, a distance of 120 miles.
Sunday’s death toll of 15 was the state’s highest since 1997, when 25 people were killed in storms that tracked from Arkadelphia to the Missouri Bootheel.
“When you lose 15 folks in one tornado, that’s an awfully big toll in Arkansas,” Robinson said.
The storm was also the 28th EF4 tornado in the state since 1950.