Friday, May 2, 2014
Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Strength and Recovery
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Last year, Arkansas had an unusually calm year for tornado activity. It was a nice reprieve, but we knew it wouldn’t last. On the night of April 27th, powerful storms tore through Central Arkansas. A high-end EF4 tornado devastated Mayflower and Vilonia, staying on the ground for more than 40 miles through three counties. Fifteen Arkansans lost their lives, making it the deadliest day for twisters in our State since the storms of March 1st, 1997.
During my seven-plus years as governor, we’ve only seen one other EF4 tornado, the Super Tuesday storm of 2008 that hit communities from Atkins all the way to Horseshoe Bend. But even after seeing the aftermath of that storm and many others in subsequent years, I witnessed destruction from this tornado that I had never laid eyes on before. A farm shop’s steel beam, anchored by a foot of concrete, plucked from its moorings like a weed by the violently twisting winds. The unnerving sight of entire neighborhoods of homes wiped away with only foundation slabs left behind.
State and local responders were on the scene quickly, while police and fire departments from other counties soon joined them. The Arkansas State Police, National Guard, Forestry Commission, Game and Fish Commission, Highway Department and other State agencies also performed admirably in the hours and days that followed. As I often say, we are too good at responding to natural disasters in Arkansas, because we get too much practice.
However, most people hit by tornadoes haven’t practiced or even imagined what this twister would put them through. While visiting damaged neighborhoods from West Pulaski County to Mayflower to Vilonia, I heard amazing stories of survival and heart-wrenching details of agonizing loss. There is only so much anyone, even a governor, can say to those picking through debris looking for a lifetime of possessions. But we can reassure them that we will work to get them as much help as possible as the rebuilding process begins.
The good news this week was the unprecedented speed with which the President issued a Major Federal Disaster Declaration for Faulkner County. I asked for the declaration on Monday, and we received it on Tuesday. This means that FEMA is already working with our Department of Emergency Management in Mayflower and Vilonia, and that Faulkner County storm victims are eligible to sign up for individual assistance. Additional declarations may still come for other counties as damages continue to be assessed.
While the strength of these storms was unusual, the response of our people was just exactly what we’ve come to expect. Volunteers have swarmed from across the State, as they always do, to help those in need. And our hearts are also with our sister states that have suffered death and destruction from the same storm system. Tornadoes will always be part of our history, but the horror and tragedy are always tempered with stories of bravery and compassion. It is this spirit that helps define our people, and that continues to keep Arkansas strong.