People used to say that Heber Springs is in “tornado alley.” Indeed, tornadoes have devastated our Ozarks Mountain town many times—and more recently, cut a swathe of destruction through nearby communities. Yet, the exclusive tornado alley concept faded due to numerous deadly funnel clouds hitting almost every part of our country. In past weeks, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, received the brunt of a forceful tornado, as did several Arkansas towns. On high school graduation night in Joplin, Missouri, an enormous whirling storm skimmed a six-mile path through that city, splintering over 8,000 structures… including homes and businesses along with their hospital and high school. People are reeling from the loss of more than 140 lives and the incomes and possessions of thousands of individuals. Two weeks later, a tornado as dark as volcanic ash roared through several Massachusetts towns—a weather phenomenon rarely witnessed in the New England states. Vehicles tossed around as though a child threw matchbox cars. Treetops tumbled, rooftops flew, and houses collapsed. One tall church steeple crashed to the ground. At least four people died, and dozens were injured. One person described the noise of a low-flying jet.
Arkansas historian, Tom Dillard, recently wrote about tornadoes in his Sunday newspaper column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His words set my thinking back to evenings hunkered in my family’s storm cellar during childhood and early years as a wife and mother. Although I’ve never lived through a storm that damaged my home, I have heard the typical freight train roar in the dark skies over our cellar. Of course, in those days, we had no radar on television to pinpoint the time a tornado would touch a certain street in a particular town. Therefore, the men, who seemed less alarmed about the prospect of a fierce storm, stood outside “… to watch the clouds.” At times, they threw open the cellar door and literally dived down the steps to safety. But not often. I remember emerging from the cellar one evening and discovering both my dad and my new husband back in their warm beds sound asleep.
My children experienced that old storm cellar even before they were born. My extended family lived on opposite corners of my childhood home. In the middle of a dark night, we made frantic phone calls to each other before heading out the door to the cellar. Back then, we never imagined a cell phone one would carry in his pocket.
One evening, my mother quickly dialed my cousins’ home across the street to warn them to get to the cellar. A sleepy man’s voice answered, “We’ll be right there!” They never came. As the menacing cloud passed, we worried. The next day, the cousin said their phone never rang. Then we laughingly speculated who in our small town had received my mother’s warning. Fortunately, that night, our homes and lives remained intact.
However, my mother and her sister remembered Thanksgiving Day in 1926. Families had gathered for a traditional noontime feast. Many still lingered around tables, nibbling leftovers and visiting. At dusk, the atmosphere thickened. Storm clouds gathered in the southwest. At 6:00 p.m., with little warning, a frightening funnel cloud dropped from the skies and whirled like a giant spinning top across Heber Springs. The storm swiped from its foundation the house on the property where I have now lived for over 50 years. The photo shows the south side of my house, which was the front of the house that was blown away. The roaring funnel cut a zigzag path from the southwest to the northeast, leaving 145 dwellings, five churches, and numerous barns in piles of wreckage. Nineteen people died and 75 were injured.
I remember my great-aunt, Lucy Dial, telling that she was on her way home from a party on that fateful Thanksgiving. Electrical lines downed across Main Street forced her to abandon her car. Instead of walking the few blocks home, she went to the makeshift hospital and morgue at Cleburne County Court House. Without a thought to her party dress stained by mud mixed with the blood of her neighbors, she described helping her husband go out into the community and load the dead and injured into his truck. “I carried the feet and Sam carried their heads,” she said. “We stacked bodies in the truck like a load of cord wood. Then we took them to the Court House and laid them out on the tile floor.”
One Heber Springs resident sat at his table that Thanksgiving night eating ambrosia and fresh coconut cake. Other members of his family had dashed for the basement of the house. The storm suddenly jerked off the door between the kitchen and dining room. As he and a boarder in the household leaped toward the basement, they surprisingly found themselves sitting upright in the garden of the house next door.
Historian Dillard wrote about a tornado tearing through the Arkansas town of Judsonia in 1952. I remember riding with my friend and her parents in a drive through of that mangled town on a crisp March Sunday afternoon—only two days after the vicious storm killed 50 people.
RVers and stick and mortar dwellers face these dangers equally. Once at the Affinity Rally in Hutchinson, Kansas, friends beat on the side of our motorhome during the dark of night, shouting that a storm brewed and we should go to a shelter under the bleachers at the fairgrounds. The large space quickly filled with pajama-clad people and dogs of all sizes on leashes. Lightning bolts crackled the midnight sky and rolls of thunder drowned out the barks, growls, and whimpers of the dogs.
At Treasure Lake, our home resort in Branson, Missouri, security staff rolls through our park, announcing an eminent storm on a loud speaker. With apprehension, we pull on raincoats and put Spot into the Jeep. We drive to our movie theater in the basement of the clubhouse. Acquaintances, strangers, and pets huddle in the theater seats until the “all clear” signal is given. Thankfully, the destruction and loss of loved ones that many have endured has passed over me and my family. But tornadoes—or even straight line winds—are no respecter of people or places. Apprehension concerning these vicious and often lethal storms is a healthy fear.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com