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Tornadoes and Flash Flooding Strike County

BY LEANN DILBECK –

A storm that spawned three tornadoes within Polk County and produced major flash flooding, still has officials assessing the totality of the damage but grateful for the quick reactions of residents who immediately responded to help neighbors.

The storm that moved into the area at approximately 2:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon first produced an EF 1 tornado in the Rocky community. Office of Emergency Management Coordinator James Reeves monitored the storm and sounded the Mena sirens as the storm appeared to be tracking just east of Mena. This action also unlocked the tornado safe rooms that provided a safe haven for local children/teens attending various basketball practices and camps on the Mena school campuses.

The tornado with wind speeds an estimated 90-100 mph had a .8 miles path width. There was minimal structural damage with some roof damage, a shed destroyed, but primarily many large trees down.

The second tornado that hit the town of Cove came with no warning Reeves said.  “It was on the ground before it even showed on the radar.” He explained that all of the radars [Little Rock, Tulsa or Shreveport] that cover Polk County, are all at such a distance that it takes 4.8 minutes to make a full rotation. The tornado in Cove was on the ground and being reported before the radar image indicated anything.

Cove resident Rodney Phillips can certainly testify to that. The tornado ripped through his property taking trees and power-lines and just missing the corner of his house by a few feet. He was home at the time, “Let me tell you, they are dead on when they say it sounds like a freight train,” Phillips said. He said he heard an unusual noise and went to the front door to look out but “I couldn’t get it opened,” he said, unable to open it from the suction. He said within moments, it was all over. Now showing up on radar, his phone began singing with calls coming in to warn him a tornado was coming, of which, he laughed and said, “No, it’s already been here and gone.”

The town of Cove does not have any sirens but with the reports from Cove coming in, they were able to sound the sirens in the Hatfield community. Some of the areas hardest hit there were along county roads 34 and 35.  Areas hardest hit in Cove, according to Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison, were along county roads 20, 22, 230 and 231.

An incident command center was established at the Cove Rural Volunteer Fire Department that allowed the county sheriff, judge, and OEM to all coordinate efforts together.

The Cove/Hatfield tornado was categorized by the National Weather Service [NWS] as an EF-2, with peak wind speeds of 120-130 mph and a 5.1 miles path width.

Close to this same time, officials were monitoring another funnel cloud near the Big Fork/Opal communities but it never touched the ground, Reeves said, until after it crossed the county line and ended up producing an EF-2 tornado in Montgomery County, affecting the Norman and Oden areas.

Reeves said he was very grateful that there was no loss of life and only minor injuries, especially with so little warning.

That same storm spawned another EF-1 tornado, touching down in Wickes, with a 2.4 miles storm path.

Reeves said as of Monday, 13 homes suffered damage or destruction by the tornadoes and one due to flood. He encourages anyone who has damage to contact his office at 479-394-8133

With torrential rains that came with that same storm, Reeves said officials and volunteers assisted with four water rescues.

Polk County Sheriff Mike Godfrey said that one of the stressful moments during the flash flooding was for a brief time when almost every major highway into Mena was blocked or underwater.

Judge Ellison said all of the plans and policies in place worked extremely well and he was proud of all of the county departments but even more proud and grateful to the people of Polk County who are always out immediately following a storm helping their neighbors. “The people here don’t sit and wait for help to come to them. By the time our crews were cutting our way into check on people, they were usually on the other side cutting their way out.”

Ellison verbally made the “ county disaster declaration” to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe made the state declaration on Friday. Ellison and Reeves are “optimistic” for a federal declaration as well. Both explained that there have been significant legislative changes since Hurricane Sandy that is designed to eliminate “red-tape” and “bureaucracy” and will generate federal disaster aid relief more expeditiously.

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