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Tornado can’t destroy community’s character

OPINION by Mark Gregory | January 8, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

The most surprising thing about having a tornado in Arkansas in January is that it isn't surprising at all.

On average, a little online research shows around four tornadoes spin up in Arkansas each January.

That's just an average; in 2021, for example, there were zero tornadoes during the month of January in the state. In 2020, there were 11.

According to the National Weather Service's Arkansas Weather Statistics for 2022, there were 39 tornadoes resulting in 13 injuries, with no fatalities, last year.

The NWS report notes that roughly 37 tornadoes occur annually (based on a 30-year average, from 1991 to 2020).

The busiest year on record for tornadoes in Arkansas was 1999, when a total of 107 tornadoes were spawned. Here's the surprising part, to me: The largest tornado outbreak in state history occurred in January of that year, on the 21st and 22nd.

In the Little Rock County Warning Area, there were 30 tornado tracks across 15 counties in that two-day period, according to the Weather Service. The Little Rock office issued 48 tornado warnings, 80 severe thunderstorm warnings, and 22 flash flood warnings during the event. The tornadoes were responsible for eight fatalities and 140 to 150 injuries.

Garland County was not one of the 15 counties struck by a tornado, although there were several in neighboring Hot Spring County.

Since 1950, through 2021, there have been 38 tornadoes in Garland County, with one fatality reported.

Given the relative rarity of a January tornado in Garland County, it's a testament to the leadership in the Jessieville School District, in particular Superintendent Melissa Speers, that only minor injuries were suffered in Monday's EF1 tornado, none of which involved students.

Speers and her team are deserving of high praise for the way they managed the situation and protected buildings full of students when the storm hit before the NWS issued its tornado warning. Speers said she had been monitoring the situation since around noon.

Garland County Department of Emergency Management Director Bo Robertson gave a blunt assessment of the situation on Tuesday. "At 2:35 there was nothing going on, maybe some light rain," he said. "At 2:38 all hell was breaking loose. Then at 2:44 it was a radar-indicated tornado. By then it was all done. It was moving away from the school. It was moving extremely fast."

The district's safe room holds around 1,200 people, or the entire student body and staff, but the suddenness of the storm forced everyone to shelter in place in their individual buildings. As Speers told us, "The storm kind of came on us just out of the blue."

Robertson said about 20 structures were damaged, including three on Murders Loop and five on Blakely Camp Road.

Again, it was a miracle that no one else was hurt, despite the lack of warning. Robin Duncan, for example, miraculously remained safe when two trees struck her house.

The tornado was on the ground for more than 2 miles and was 200 yards in width. It lasted three minutes, from 2:38 p.m. to 2:41 p.m.

The North Little Rock NWS office told us on Tuesday that it issued a tornado warning at 2:44 p.m. The 2:26 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. radar scan detected a broad rotation. The 2:35 p.m. to 2:40 p.m. scan showed a tighter rotation indicative of a tornado.

Given the lack of warning, the Jessieville community was extremely fortunate. Buildings can be repaired or replaced, but you can't replace a life.

The event brought back memories of April 25, 2011, when three tornadoes touched down in Garland County, the strongest an EF3.

That tornado traveled from 3.3 miles east-northeast of Fountain Lake to 2 miles southeast of Jessieville. Its path was 9.5 miles long and 300 yards wide, and blew down or snapped off hundreds of trees and power lines, including at least 500 in Hot Springs Village alone.

The damage was so severe that the electrical infrastructure in the Walnut Valley and Ragweed Valley Road areas had to be completely rebuilt. There were only minor injuries.

We were fortunate then, and we were fortunate now, mainly because we had a capable leader who made informed decisions. Thank you, Superintendent Speers.

Print Headline: Tornado can’t destroy community’s character

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