A little over a decade ago, I left my hometown in Missouri due to circumstances beyond my control. I moved to a new area where the only people I knew were my biological family. And since then, I have called Northeast Arkansas home. No matter what age you are, when you move to a new city a lot of things will cross your mind. Will I be able to meet new friends? Am I going to be happy here? Are the restaurants going to be same? And slowly, I began to fall in love with this part of the country. Not because of the scenery, because you can only look at fields of rice so many times in your life before you start to hate rice. Also, why didn’t someone warn me about the mosquitoes? The mosquitoes are so big here, they could steal an entire sandwich. The main reason I fell in love with this area is because of the people.
And in the past decade, I have made friends that are now my family whether they like it or not. I met the woman I decided to spend the rest of my life with. Northeast Arkansas will always have a special place in my heart. And that brings me to yesterday.
Yesterday, started like any other Saturday. I woke up confused because I am still not used to mornings. My wife’s Nana asked us to go over to their house to take care of a few things while her Papa is away dealing with his own fight. And we took our normal route and we always admire some of the houses along the way. We notice a screened in patio and a family watching television together. That is the American dream, being able to watch television outside. We did what we needed to do, and left town at around 2:30.
Once home, we start to give our dog a small haircut. She looked like an Ewok. While being the cutest thing ever, I know that much hair has to be miserable. And a weather alert popped up on my phone of a tornado warning. Normally, I never turn on television. Our news network developed a wonderful weather app to keep up to date on things, but this time, I decided to turn on the television. On the screen is a familiar face to Northeast Arkansas, Meteorologist Ryan Vaughan. Ryan joined our local news station in 2001. And while many faces of the StormTEAM have changed over the years, Ryan is a constant for our community. Ryan, who had the day off on March 28th, joined Northeast Arkansas native Zach Holder. Zach grew up in the town we call home now, Paragould Arkansas. And a new face for me at least, Aaron Castleberry.
Ryan working from home, social distancing, Zach and Aaron are in studio covering a tornado on the ground around the small town of Amagon. A town of the population of 98. Mostly a farming area, a video of the tornado on the ground popped up on Twitter shortly after the warning. And then, the storm moved towards the city of Jonesboro. As I am watching from home and shaving our dog, you could tell something is different. The StormTEAM’s voices started to sound different. If you have never been in the middle of a tornado warning, let me explain. Most of the time, meteorologists are giving data, tracking the storm, and telling people to take shelter if you are in the path of the storm. Their voices are come across as stern but calming. The idea during a tornado warning is not to cause panic, but to make sure everyone within the sound of their voice takes shelter.
But yesterday, something was different. As storm inched closer to Jonesboro, a conversation started taking place on air. The tornado around Amagon rescinded back into the sky, but radar picked up possible rotation as the storm approached. The National Weather Service issued a Thunderstorm Warning for Craighead County, not a tornado warning. The reasoning is understood, they want to make sure, people do not panic. As Ryan is explaining this to us sitting at home, “Everyone needs to take shelter in Jonesboro. Please take this seriously.” Those words spoke volumes to me. I texted my wife’s Grannie, her Dad’s mother to take shelter. Usually, I just tell her about the storms and to be careful, but hearing a different tone from our local meteorologists, I told her to get into her storm cellar. Ryan discussed the storm having a profane wall cloud, and if the storm produced another tornado, it may happen over the city of Jonesboro.
As the storm approached, they started telling residents of the city to take shelter now. One portion of the storm caused concern for the entire team.
All over Northeast Arkansas, our local news affiliate KAIT 8, uses cameras or SKYCAM, to take a look at what is going on around the area. Most of the time, each shot is of one of towns in the area and a sunset that could be a Windows Screensaver. But around 5PM on Saturday, March 28th, the SKYCAMS placed around the city of Jonesboro would paint an image that will be talked about for many years to come. Below are some videos of what our StormTEAM dealt with on Saturday evening. The first is the entire coverage. You can see what Northeast Arkansas watched. The second video shows the section that the tornado touched down inside the city.
The storm produced a second tornado over the city that I have called home, 15 minutes away from where I live. As the tornado touched down, my mind started racing. I thought of the city of Stockton, Missouri, about 25 minutes from the town I grew up in. An EF 3 tornado destroyed the small town in the blink of an eye in May of 2003. The entire square gone. Small town life changed in a moment. As the StormTEAM is telling people to please take cover in Jonesboro, the voices we all are familiar with in Region 8, had a tone of worry, but the team kept their composure. Debris started being picked up by the tornado. The team is trying to do their best at pinpointing the path of this tornado. And discussed one of our local hospitals could be potentially in the path. During this time in history, losing a hospital could be detrimental to the community and the entire area. And then my mind went to what happened to the city of Joplin in 2011.
On May 22nd, 2011 the city of Joplin was leveled by an EF5 tornado. The storm ripped through highly populated areas, destroyed. But during that tornado, one of the hospitals was hit by the storm. In the midst of one of the deadliest storms to ever hit the US, Joplin was down a hospital. The events of that storm would be felt by the community for years. Stories of heroism, bravery, and compassion would be told over the radio airwaves, in television, and in print. Joplin rebuilt and is stronger than ever, but the tornado did over 2.8 billion dollars in damage.
Debris tossed up thousands of feet in the air, the tornado grew larger as it continued on its path. And we sitting at home are only able to watch, fearing for our loved one’s safety. The StormTEAM switched to the camera on top of our local hospital. And the image of the tornado tearing through the area we drove in earlier will always be ingrained in my mind as long as I live. And as the storm raged on, we heard it could make it to our town. My wife and I jumped into action, grabbed our dog, grabbed our cat (she was not happy about this) and went to take cover at my mother’s house.
While standing in her living room, I received one of the most heart-breaking texts of my life. My wife’s grandparent’s house could have been in the path of the storm. And their house might have been taken away by an act of mother nature. We had not heard from her other grandmother yet. All we were able to do is watch what was happening. The city my wife and I met in, had our first date in, got married in, is hurting. Even during this pandemic, all I could think about is the people of Jonesboro. Our friends and our family, some of our readers live in that community. For some time, I felt like I was dreaming.
As we stood in that living room, now searching for our cat, who may believe the sky is falling or all the tuna is gone, the first pictures of Jonesboro started to appear on social media. The tornado sirens blaring, the world stood still. We had to go there a few hours ago, could this really be happening.
Once we were in the clear, we left to check on our family. May not have been the best decision, but as someone who has viewed damage from tornadoes up close, you never really know what to expect. As we began our journey, we turned on the radio. And heard the familiar voice of Trey Stafford talking to members of the Jonesboro community discussing what these individuals witnessed. Some people reported that certain businesses were no longer standing, the Jonesboro Airport ravaged, a plant on fire. A woman told her story of being trapped PetSmart during the storm. The employee’s helped get the customers to safety in an area of the store designated for protection during storms. The doors of the store ripped off by the powerful wind, but everyone inside is safe. But immediately, everyone inside had to leave due to a gas leak. Citizens telling others to stay home and stop looking.
One of the busiest streets in the city, Red Wolf Boulevard had the tornado go right through. Pictures of cars being flipped, put on roofs of buildings, or even the entire body of the car completely removed started making their rounds on social media. Our Mall destroyed. Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Dillard’s, damaged to the point of not being a recognized in photos. Restaurants torn apart. Homes gone in a split second.
Our family was safe, some damage occurred at their properties, but nothing major. There was even one tulip blooming in the front yard, not even bent by the storm passing so closely by. A pinkish purple sky started to set over Jonesboro. The storm passed but left its mark.
After we found out the news about our family, we turned around to head home. Sitting in the front seat of the car, I can’t help but look at my phone worried about the news that would be shared because of this storm. Our medical professionals already worked to the bone due to COVID-19, will now have to endure the stress of Mother Nature.
But one thing is for sure, even in the face of a pandemic, the area of Northeast Arkansas came together to help each other. First responders from towns 30 to 50 miles were on the scene. Ambulance drivers met together in the mall parking lot and made sure there was a game plan in place. In the midst of a national emergency and local emergency, our area stood as one. Thank you to all the EMTs, Firefighters, Police officers, Volunteers, and anyone I missed.
On a normal Saturday, the mall would be filled with patrons walking from store to store carrying bags from Bath and Body Works. Our restaurants would be filled with families spending quality time together and friends laughing. But on this day, none of that was happening. The area is practicing social distancing and trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The mall walkways were empty. The few stores that are still open had limited employees. I never thought I would ever find a silver lining in dealing with COVID-19, but staying home saved lives in two ways on Saturday. At the time of writing this, 22 minor injuries, 2 people in the hospital but stable, and no fatalities.
The StormTEAM saved lives during that afternoon. Those three men are heroes. As they watched the town and area, they love get hit by an EF3 Tornado, they kept their composure. I and many other of this area will hold a special place in our hearts for the KAIT 8 StormTEAM.
As I finish typing this, I want to share something with you. A lot of the ideas for this website, started in that mall. I would bounce ideas off my former best friend as we would people watch. Some ideas would stick and some would not. My wife and I had our second date begin at that place. Barnes and Noble became a must go to spot after Hastings closed. I know a lot of people lost their homes, precious mementos of their lives, businesses taken away by the power of a storm, while the physical possessions and places are gone, our memories will never fade. Jonesboro will be rebuilt. We love you Jonesboro.