VILONIA, Ark. — “It’s here.”
That was the last text Brett Kingrey received from his wife shortly before dark Sunday evening as a violent EF-3 tornado took dead aim at the family’s home.
In the next moments, the EF-3 twister destroyed the Kingrey home and all 55 others in Parkwood Meadow, a new, upscale subdivision in the quiet town of 4,000 about 30 miles north of Little Rock.
Winds of around 150 miles per hour threw Kingrey’s father-in-law and son out of the home. Debris lacerated the boy’s liver and broke the man’s arm. His wife and 14-month-old child survived in the debris of the leveled home, Kingrey, working at a job site two hours from home, would later learn after a family friend delivered them to a local hospital.
They were among the lucky.
Ten people died in the town, itself no stranger to tornadoes. Nearly three years ago to the day, another tornado roared through on an eerily similar path, killing five.
In the intervening time, though, residents and local officials worked to rebuild with an eye toward the sky.
“We learned a lot from the last tornado,” explained Mayor James Firestone. “Being aware of the warnings and how serious they are, having adequate time to get somewhere, and then having somewhere to go made a big difference.”
Many of the homes rebuilt since the 2011 storm now feature safe rooms. All of the town’s school campuses have safe rooms or areas large enough to hold all students, and those safe areas open to the public when local officials engage the citywide alert system, which they did Sunday 40, 20 and five minutes before the tornado hit.
“All my family was in a safe room somewhere, and I felt very comfortable,” Firestone said.
However, safe rooms not built properly — or at all — are of little use. The mayor noted that the doors on one of the school safe areas were not up to snuff. The doors failed, turning the supposedly safe hallway into a giant wind tunnel. No one was using the area when the tornado hit, destroying the $14 million structure.
“The reinforced hallways are the only thing standing there, but we learned a lesson,” he said.
Kingrey acknowledged that building a safe room had been on his family’s to-do list but hadn’t been the top priority since moving into the new home last July.
“The next house will have a safe room, whether it’s a shelter outside or inside. We will definitely have that. I think my wife probably won’t buy it or move into it if it doesn’t have that.”
Kingrey’s neighbor, Ronnie Green, echoed the sentiment.
“I am going to do research, but there is going to be a safe room in the next house,” he said, standing on the bare slab where his new home had stood two days previous. “We were going to do that, but we had just moved in and were trying to get things further along, but I am going to see which one has been tested … and survived.”
Green was out of town at a work site, but his family rode out the storm in a safe room a few miles away.
Kingrey’s experience also put another preparedness idea in his head. His father-in-law, outfitted in a heavy coat, did not suffer as many cuts and abrasions as his son.
“I believe we are going to have a tornado survival kit — helmets, eyewear, heavy shoes to put on, heavy clothes to put on,” he said, upbeat and positive, standing in the remnants of every material thing his family owned before the tornado came.
Arkansas is one state that provides a significant tax credit for homeowners to install a storm shelter. Oklahoma also offers a fiscal incentive.
In addition to the community safe rooms, Vilonia’s officials have invested in other resources. The town’s fire department has added full- and part-time personnel, and those personnel have assembled an emergency response trailer that features generators and extrication equipment. The mayor said that the efforts since the 2011 tornado almost certainly saved lives when Sunday’s stronger storm swept through.
Jeff Baskin, chief meteorologist at Fox 16 in Little Rock, pointed to improved radar technology, combined with digital mapping capabilities, that provide intricate details of approaching storms. A generation ago, Doppler radar measured whether water droplets were moving toward or away from the radar site. Today, “dual polarization” allows officials to view debris in the air, and images are available in near real-time.
The next generation of improved storm predicting will focus on analyzing data with significant computer modeling, Baskin suggested.
“Much research is going into improving such models so that soon it may be possible to predict where a supercell thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado will come from a couple hours out.”
(Photo by Rick Fahr)