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Tornado all but wipes out Arkansas subdivision; tragedy hits home

Tornadoes and Wind StormsDollar General Corporation
Vilonia, Arkansas subdivision is ripped to shreds in tornado
Residents of a tight Vilonia, Ark. subdivision scour debris of their tornado ruined homes

VILONIA, Ark. — The Parkwood Meadows subdivision is only several years old, a cluster of brick homes where neighbors know each other and children play at a portable basketball hoop rolled onto the street.

On Monday, numerous residents were believed dead and others, including children, were hospitalized after a tornado transformed the subdivision into a bizarre and tragic landscape:

Only eight homes are still standing in the roughly 50-house neighborhood. One of the main streets, Aspen Creek Drive, was leveled. Winds impaled wading pools on fences.  Trees toppled, shorn of leaves. Dozens of cars came to rest amid the remnants of neighbor’s homes.

The capricious twister reduced some homes to piles of planks, sheet rock and rubble on one street. It ripped the roofs off others, toppled walls and imploded garages. But it left the subdivision’s brick sign as pristine as the pair of brown cowboy boots propped against it.

PHOTOS: Tornadoes ravage Arkansas

The spate of dangerous storms killed at least 16 people late Sunday, 15 in Arkansas. On Monday afternoon, the storms cut their way through parts of Mississippi, where early assessments showed significant damage in Tupelo. Tornado warnings and severe weather were expected in Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee, according the National Weather Service.

In Parkwood Meadows, Linda Mulligan, 42, tried to salvage her family’s belongings late Monday. She piled them in a hamper and wheelbarrow. During the tornado, Mulligan had sheltered in a closet with her husband and two stepdaughters, ages 18 and 10.

“It lifted us about 30 feet,” said Mulligan, field coordinator for an elevator company. “If it wasn’t for my husband holding everyone’s hands and praying, we wouldn’t have made it.”

They emerged to find their home destroyed. Officials told her several of her neighbors had died. The police chief said that across town, eight had been killed by the storm.

“They carried one out today,” Mulligan said. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing.”

Those combing the rubble had to leave for a while Monday afternoon as officials brought in dogs to search the area.

Whitney Walker, who lives nearby and was helping a now homeless relative, said officials told her they were using cadaver dogs.

“They did a deep search, then a secondary search so they think they’ve cleared everything,” she said.

Late Monday, swallows chirped as they darted through shattered windows. Earth movers hefted crushed cars from the streets, triggering alarms and hazard lights. National Guardsmen, firefighters, police and sheriff’s deputies from surrounding counties joined in the recovery.

They saved an heirloom quilt, checkbooks, a Raggedy Ann doll, wedding albums, a high school letter jacket and a championship ring — even a mud-caked, working laptop. A pregnant mother stood surveying the wreckage in the afternoon heat until she found some of her baby clothes and bedding. A 13-year-old boy stepped on a nail but still managed to find his prized video games — and his Bible.

Resident Daniel Smith, 36, a father of four, works at the O’Reilly Auto Parts in town. The tornado crushed it into the Dollar General, near downed power lines and snapped telephone poles.

During the storm, Smith and his family sheltered in a safe room at the high school. When they returned Sunday night, their street reeked of gas. They could hear neighbors calling for help. They knocked on doors but couldn’t find anyone.

Their home was among the few still standing Monday, although the roof had been damaged and windows shattered.

Smith heard a neighbor had passed away, that her husband was in the hospital, her teenage son missing. He said that the family who lived behind him had to be extracted from their home and hospitalized.

“We’re so lucky because so many people lost so much,” Smith said as he stood in the muddy lawn outside his battered home, where he watched the governor pass during a disaster tour Monday.

Dawn Neely, 41, lives next door to the teenager who’s missing. She too weathered the storm at home, taking cover in a three-foot-square bathroom closet. Her two dogs cowered on the floor outside.

After the tornado passed, Neely was trapped. A neighbor cleared debris and freed her. When she emerged, her bathroom was missing a ceiling and most of its walls. One of her dogs was trapped under debris. The other was missing.

She freed the first, who was unharmed. Monday morning she got a call: the second dog, a Labrador mix named Georgia Belle, had been found about a mile away — alive.

Neely's husband is an airman deployed in the Middle East. He's due home Tuesday. Some of his colleagues helped her search the remnants of her home Monday for valuables. They found her wedding ring. By evening, they had found his, a gold band sparkling with diamonds.

When they handed her the ring, Neely was wearing wrinkled sweats and rain boots. She held it up to the setting sun like a prize, smiling. Then her face crumpled. In front of her sat the skeleton of her family home.

“That will make you cry,” she said, slipping the oversized ring on a slim finger, “That will get you.”

She has not allowed her two children, ages 14 and 10, to see the house. It’s just too much, she said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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