Goodness! It is storming tonight. Heavy thunderstorms are heading our way from northern Oklahoma. Numerous Tornado warnings have already been issued. I really HATE tornado season. There are few things that I use the “H” word for, but I truly HATE tornado season. And, with good reason….
April 21, 1996: I was repapering my formal dining room walls that day. It was hot for April and very windy. The wind blew hard all day, but the hot air was really strange. After I finished papering and cleaned up the mess, I made dinner and got the kids ready for bed. It was a school night and I had to be at work at 8:00 AM. My husband was watching TV and his program was frequently interrupted by weather bulletins and warnings. The around 10:00 PM he begins to sound a bit concerned. “Hey! I think we may be in for something bad. This storm is heading in straight from Arkoma.” We lived in Van Buren at that time and we’d had several close calls with tornadoes passing over the river from Fort Smith and skipping north of town. Mostly because the topography of the land would push the weather north. The west ridge of Van Buren was high up on Mt. Vista, which overlooked the Arkansas River towards Fort Smith. We’d be protected, or so I thought.
I went ahead and put the kids to bed, but I put them both in my daughter’s bed that night. Just a hunch! It would be easier to grab two kids from the same bed. My husband and I stayed up to make sure the weather passed us by. Around 10:30, it was really storming outside. My daughter’s bedroom window faced west and I’d watch the storm clouds ever so often from her room. 10:45 PM – tornado warnings are issued for Fort Smith and Van Buren and just as they were announcing the warnings. We lost power. I had all the windows in the house slightly cracked and all of a sudden every door in the house starts slamming shut. I ran to the bedroom and grabbed the kids out of the bed and put them in the bath tub, covered them with pillows and blankets. I thought my husband would be right behind me, but he wasn’t. I ran back up the hallway towards my daughter’s bedroom. A huge flash of lightening illuminated a huge tornado bearing down Mt. Vista to the west of us. I couldn’t tell (in the dark) which way it was headed. I was terrified! Where was Tim?
I circled back through the house, through our bedroom, through the kitchen and past the laundry room. The interior garage door was open. He was in the garage looking for his battery operated radio, but he couldn’t get any reception on the radio. We found out later the tornado had knocked out every radio station tower in the area. “Tim! Are you nuts? Get in the bathroom with me and the kids”, I said. “Oh! Its just straight line winds. What are you worrying about?”. As we passed the front door towards the bathroom, I opened the front door and said “Does that SOUND like straight line winds to you?” We quickly retreated to the bathroom where the kids were sleeping in the tub. And, as quickly as it had begun, it was over.
Without power, without phones, LAN or cell services, we were cut-off from friends, family and services. We ventured outside to survey the damage. We were extremely lucky. A few trees were down in the neighborhood, we had debris in the yard, but no structural damage to the house. Thank goodness! Unfortunately, many of our dear friends were not so lucky. Their homes completely destroyed.
We spent the next day helping friends save what they could as the rain continued. What wasn’t damaged in the storm was ruined by the continual rain. Their stories of how fast the tornado tore their lives apart was shocking, but thankfully – no one died in Van Buren that night. We later learned the tornado was nearly a mile wide and was classified as a strong F3 (almost F4) tornado.
I’m watching the weather tonight and the exact same path is being followed by tonights storm and the warnings have gone out to our former home town. And, even though I now live in Northwest Arkansas, I’ll be watching the weather tonight. Probably not sleeping very much. I’ll have my flash light, my cell phone, my list of emergency numbers on the night stand. I can’t stress the importance of preparing for this season. God forbid it happen, but it does – and quickly.
PS: Just lost the Fort Smith TV Channel. Other channels are reporting damage in downtown Fort Smith. Have I mentioned I HATE tornadoes?