Shelter from the storm

A flag flies amid the debris after the Vilonia tornado. Image by Wesley Hitt, Getty Images.

A flag flies amid the debris after the Vilonia tornado. Image by Wesley Hitt, Getty Images.

Nearly a month after the deadly tornadoes that struck Arkansas and other parts of the South, the scars abound: those on the landscape and on us as a people.

Some areas are still littered with debris, while others look more normal (though denuded of trees and homes), but cleanup will continue for months.

In the past week, Pulaski County workers have been picking up debris that, because it was on private roads, they initially wouldn’t. The county’s cost is expected to be $3.5 million to pick up and process all the debris on public and private roads.

People tend a fire to clear debris in Vilonia. Image by Carlo Allegri, Reuters.

People tend a fire to clear debris in Vilonia. Image by Carlo Allegri, Reuters.

So far, nearly $2 million in individual assistance has been approved for residents in the 11 Arkansas counties declared federal disaster areas after the storms. But individual assistance isn’t all that’s available, Rita Egan, a media relations specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told me. Groups can apply for grants for the building of community shelters through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

Stories after the storms showed how important a good shelter can be.

About 400 people took shelter at a community safe room at Vilonia High School. “I’m sure having safe rooms saved some lives,” Vilonia School District Superintendent Frank Mitchell told Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Brenda Bernet. “A lot of houses around there were totally destroyed.”

Before the April 27 tornado, construction was completed on the safe room at Vilonia Primary School, one of three community shelters the district has. Image from Nabholz Construction.

Before the April 27 tornado, construction was completed on the safe room at Vilonia Primary School, one of three community shelters the district has. Image from Nabholz Construction.

Reader Ray Dardenne of Stuttgart, noting the numbers saved by that shelter and others, wrote and said he hopes that safe rooms will be included in the construction of a new middle school to be built in DeWitt.

I’d have to agree for just about any school.

More than 120 community safe rooms have been built in Arkansas since 2000, and another 44 are being built, according to Brandon Morris of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.

Grants pay for 75 percent of the cost of building the shelters, which must be built to FEMA standards.

Lake Hamilton School District built a safe room on its primary school campus, which opens when a tornado warning is issued for Garland County. Image from Lake Hamilton School District.

Lake Hamilton School District built a safe room on its primary school campus, which opens when a tornado warning is issued for Garland County. Image from Lake Hamilton School District.

School systems like Vilonia, which has three such rooms, and Fort Smith, with 23, open their shelters to the community during weather warnings when school is not in session; the rest of the time they’re primarily for the safety of students, faculty and staff.

Quite a bit different from the days of sitting in interior hallways with your head in your lap, a time I miss not at all, especially during an especially long storm. The crick in my neck always took days to get rid of.

Egan told me that interest in FEMA’s safe-room funding program has understandably increased in the counties most affected by the tornadoes, but said “preparedness doesn’t end there.”

She cautioned that, once the shelter is built to the standards necessary to receive FEMA funding, it’s vital to make sure to register the location of the shelter with emergency managers or local authorities. If, after a disaster, the shelter is blocked with debris, knowing where it is will help rescue workers get out anyone stuck inside the safe room that much faster.

A family's safe room survived the Vilonia tornado. Image from Reuters.

A family’s safe room survived the Vilonia tornado. Image from Reuters.

That’s an important step many people probably never thought about. I know I certainly didn’t.

Is your community interested in building a safe room? Go to the FEMA site for all the particulars, including case studies on other communities’ safe rooms, and how to apply for grants.

It just might save some more lives.

****

As cleanup continues, said Egan, we have to also remember that recovery is a process: “Recovery is long and arduous and each person has their own guidepost.” Beyond physical and structural recovery, she said, you “have to do it mentally and emotionally.” Whether that’s done through taking breaks to rest, playing games with the kids, or just going out to eat, it’ll go a long way toward healing a wounded psyche.

Volunteers clean up downed trees in central Arkansas. Image from mormonnewsroom.org

Volunteers clean up downed trees in central Arkansas. Image from mormonnewsroom.org.

As terrible as this storm was, it proved something to me—that at heart, no matter how our politics may differ, we’re all part of one family: Arkansans. Neighbor has helped neighbor, stranger helped stranger, and showed the brand of kindness that asks nothing in return.

Inside, we’re all the same. Our politics do not define us; our humanity does. We get scared, but we will persevere.

We’re Arkansas strong, and we can stay that way.

And Ms. Egan, we apologize for all the pollen, mold and fiberglass in the air, and hope your sinuses feel better soon.

****

This young kitten was found in the aftermath of the Vilonia tornado. Image by Danny Johnston, AP.

This young kitten was found in the aftermath of the Vilonia tornado. Image by Danny Johnston, AP.

Lest we forget, it wasn’t just us humans affected by the tornadoes that gobsmacked Arkansas. Family pets died or were lost, and many are still waiting in shelters. Sometimes, though, we get to hear about a reunion that truly warms the heart.

NBC reported the story of Oreo, a family dog thought lost in the tornado. The lovable and happy little guy was found in the rubble days later, wagging his tail, with only one small scratch.

With a face like this, how could anyone NOT smile? Good to know he can still be goofy.

Happy little guy Oreo somehow survived the destruction of his family's home. Image by Paul Blecher, NBC News.

Happy little guy Oreo somehow survived the destruction of his family’s home. Image by John Brecher, NBC News.

 ****

As I write this, it’s official that Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross are the Republican and Democratic candidates for Arkansas governor.

Meryl and Maks danced a contemporary freestyle (top) and a sexy Argentine tango in the finale. Images from ABC.

Meryl and Maks danced a contemporary freestyle (top) and a sexy Argentine tango in the finale. Images from ABC.

OK, and in the vote I really care about, Maksim Chmerkovskiy FINALLY won Dancing With the Stars (it’s about time), with his partner Meryl Davis.

Congrats, Maks, we love ya! It’s well-deserved and a long time coming.

Back to Arkansas politics now: I grew up in Western Arkansas, which happened to be where Asa Hutchinson served as U.S. attorney. He was always good enough at his job, but I’ve never really seen a lot of drive from him, and apparently neither have voters as he’s never won a statewide race. He’s been a U.S. representative, DEA administrator, and undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security, but is probably best-known lately for his lobbying for the NRA. This isn’t his first run at the Governor’s Mansion, and win or lose, it might not be his last, either.

A side note: Hutchinson’s early vote Monday in Bentonville was delayed because the Republican candidate … forgot his photo ID, reported the Associated Press. One would think a member of the GOP would have that ID on him at all times to prevent any possibility of disenfranchisement. Tsk, tsk …

Images by The Associated Press. (left) Asa Hutchinson is applauded by his wife Susan and others as early vote totals are announced at his election watch party in Little Rock. (right) Former congressman Mike Ross and his wife Holly celebrate in Little Rock after winning the statewide Democratic primary election in the race for Arkansas governor.

Images by The Associated Press. (left) Asa Hutchinson is applauded by his wife Susan and others as early vote totals are announced at his election watch party in Little Rock. (right) Former congressman Mike Ross and his wife Holly celebrate in Little Rock after winning the statewide Democratic primary election in the race for Arkansas governor.

Ross also is a bit of a cipher. He retired, after 12 years, from the U.S. House after his 2010-2012 term to pursue other opportunities … and because he was “sick of Washington,” he told the National Journal. He got into the governor’s race following the withdrawal of Dustin McDaniel (tainted by an affair) after an onslaught of calls, emails and letters implored him to run. A fiscally conservative Democrat, he’s well-known as a member of the Blue Dog coalition and as a very moderate congressman in his votes. He’s not the most exciting or flashy personality, but that’s not what counts, is it?

Please tell me it’s not. I’m serious. I may cry otherwise.

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2 thoughts on “Shelter from the storm

    • I know 😦
      I keep hoping those of us without the flash and cash will get some love, but alas …
      At least animals don’t really care about that for the most part (but put a laser pointer in your hand …).

      Like

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