Arkansas recovering from deadly tornadoes

“It's just all gone.” That's what Shawn Burgess, Stone County, Ark., agent for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, saw at one stop as he drove the county roads to check on his clients, dodging downed power lines and trees.

“I went to one family this morning. They lost their house and their rent house. The roof is blown off the house they live in,” he said. “They lost four barns and can't find any of their stock trailers.”

On Feb. 5, a line of storms spawned tornadoes that killed 13 people in Arkansas. Van Buren, Pope, Sharp, Izard and Conway counties were all hard hit.

In Izard County, Extension agent Carroll Prewett was standing amid the remains of the cattle operation of one of his clients near Melbourne, Ark. Wind noise drowned his voice from time to time on a cell call.

“One of my farmers, it blew his barn away,” Prewett said. “There are dead cattle everywhere. He has 1,300 stockers here — maybe 200 dead. The fence is down. I just left my office to come out here and see what I could do to help.”

Prewett said the power was out and trees were down in the county. The phones at his office were out of order.

In Pope County, Ark., Phil Sims, Extension agent, said damage was severe, mainly in and around Atkins, Ark. “The schools were not hit and are in session today. I thought that was a positive thing to do to normalize the routine for our kids.”

Sims said Entergy personnel were coming from Oklahoma to handle downed, but live wires. “They still have power in them, and clean up can't occur until power is turned off.”

Sims was trying to check with farmers in the area affected by the tornado, but cell phone coverage was erratic. The main area hit was more row crop production than beef cattle production.

Sims said Extension would help in the relief efforts. “We'll encourage 4-H youth to offer to help people in need.”

After the Appleton-Jerusalem tornado a few weeks earlier, 4-H'ers helped elderly and fixed-income residents who couldn't afford to hire someone to pickup debris out of their yards and fields. After that tornado, 4-H'ers picked up stones and other debris deposited in cattle pastures.

Sims cautioned residents about food safety after a tornado. “It doesn't take long for food to go bad when there's no power,” he said. The Extension service will provide advice to people in the affected area about food safety issues.

The tornado hit home personally for Sims, who knew three of the four person reported killed in his county. During a county fair meeting shortly after the tornado hit, “we all said a prayer for the victims.”

Linda Tanner, Sharp County Extension administrative office supervisor, said her office escaped damage, but “most of the Highland business area is destroyed. The old Ford dealership is gone. There was a barber and beauty shop, restaurant, all kinds of things” were destroyed, she said. “There are homes destroyed and lots of timber.”

Conway County Extension agent Tommy Thompson was driving the back roads trying to get to devastated areas to check on farmers. His wife was documenting producer losses with a digital camera.

“The feed mill between here and Atkins was destroyed, and we have tons of chickens that have to have food,” he said. “There's going to be barns blown down and hay bales blown away and cattle are going to have to be fed.”

The tornado damage was more widespread than the early January twister that hit Appleton and Jerusalem, killing one person.

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