In the path of the storm
By Rick Rojas, Yousur Al-Hlou, Steve Cavendish, Sarah Kerr and Jamie McGee
Somewhere outside of Searcy, Arkansas, as a ferocious storm swept over wide-open land, the ingredients came together to create tornadoes with astonishing staying power.
The supercell, a strong thunderstorm with a rotating updraft, churned through vast, flat farmland while hurling bales of cotton and shredding barns. It eviscerated a nursing home in Monette, Arkansas. It hopped the Mississippi River, clipped the western edge of Tennessee and plowed into Kentucky, leaving some communities almost entirely leveled.
The path of destruction, in the end, reached 260 miles.
It was part of a broader storm on Dec. 10 that spawned many tornadoes that unleashed devastation in several states. But this supercell stood alone because of its staggering length and destructive force. The National Weather Service confirmed that the storm spawned one single tornado that traveled nearly 164 miles through Kentucky.
“This tornado event was certainly an oddity in many ways,” said Jason Naylor, a professor at the University of Louisville who studies tornado formation, duration and intensity. For one thing, he said, “It’s freakishly long.” And there was the timing: “The fact it occurred in December is pretty odd.”
There is a lot about steady, long-track tornadoes that scientists are still trying to understand, he said. This tornado struck in a similar area as the 1925 “tri-state tornado,” the deadliest in the country’s history, which etched a 219-mile trail of destruction.
Hit at 7:25 p.m.
The firefighters from Trumann had swarmed into Monette like others from across eastern Arkansas: Weiner, Harrisburg, West Memphis. They helped however they could, including pulling residents out of a nursing home that was demolished by a tornado.
But that was just the beginning of a long night.
There was severe damage just outside of Trumann, too, officials said, and these firefighters came upon it. They maneuvered through darkness and debris, said Revis Kemper, the chief of the Trumann Fire Department, who asked each of his firefighters to write out accounts of what they remembered from that night while it was fresh in their minds.
One man they found was trapped underneath a hot-water heater. They did not have spine boards to carry him, so they used a wooden door that had been blown from its hinges. To get him out, Kemper said, they commandeered a truck with the keys in it and drove him to get more medical attention.
Storm spotters could see another tornado approaching. The sirens blared in Trumann at 9:03 p.m. The tornado reached the city limits by about 9:12.
The firehouse was left a pile of debris and twisted metal. That night, they were picking through the rubble, searching for supplies.
“We still have to respond,” Kemper said. “We still have to take care of these people. We still have to be a fire department.”
Hit at 9:30 p.m.
On Eighth Street, the churches look like they were attacked.
First Baptist is missing a roof. First United Methodist is missing part of a front facade and all of a sanctuary wall. And the tiny St. James A.M.E. building, erected in 1923, has as many bricks in its parking lot as it does still attached to the structure.
The Rev. Gloria Lasco was called to St. James just two months ago. She is still learning the names and faces of the 50-person congregation, a group that has met in person only three times during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet this week she and her bishop, Anne Henning Byfield, stood on the front steps handing out water, toiletries and other essentials to anyone in need. African Methodist Episcopal churches from across the country have sent aid.
“That’s what we’re called to do,” Lasco said. “Even though I didn’t know much of the community yet, these are people’s lives and their homes. When you can look through their home, it’s devastating. It gives you the resolve to do what I’ve got to do.”
Byfield said she had assigned Lasco to rebuild the historic congregation. Now she will have to rebuild the church, too.
Hit at 10:20 p.m.
Standing on what remained of the side porch, George Pettit held a violin missing all but two strings. He and his brother Duke Pettit were salvaging what they could from the home that had been in their family since the 1830s.
“My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandfather and my great-great-great-grandfather all were born and died in this house,” George Pettit, 80, said.
The tornado sheared off the top story of the two-level structure and collapsed half of the bottom. Duke Pettit, who lived there, said the replacement cost could be well into the seven figures.
The house, the second oldest in Caldwell County, was built in 1828. The family bought it and the surrounding land not long afterward. While the Pettits carted out rare books and other heirlooms spared by the storm, workers cleared debris from the surrounding 60 acres with some urgency. Rain in the forecast would very likely turn the fields to mud and make the pieces of metal and insulation significantly harder to remove.
Still, things could have been worse: Duke Pettit was away at a wedding when the tornado came through, and the home was unoccupied.
Dawson Springs, Kentucky
Hit at 10:30 p.m.
Breeana Glisson and her children lay huddled together in bed when the tornado struck and their house collapsed on them. Powerful winds then ripped the roof away and flung the terrified family nearly 50 yards down the block. Glisson managed to hold on to her 4-year-old son; her 2-year-old daughter landed several feet away.
Through the rain and over piles of rubble, they hiked to safety in a neighbor’s basement, a rare refuge in a town that was nearly demolished.
“I really thought me and both my kids were going to die,” she said. “I told them a hundred thousand times that Mommy’s got them.”
Two days later, on the edge of a hillside overlooking a vast stretch of destroyed homes and apartments, fallen trees and smashed cars, Glisson, 26, searched for her son’s sleeping medication, her right arm now in a sling. She cheered at the sight of a purple backpack that held her food stamps and insurance cards. It was found two houses away from where her home once stood.
“That’s my house right there,” she said, pointing to a pile of wooden walls and bricks. “It’s nothing.”
Hit at 11 p.m.
When James Stewart called family members Friday encouraging them to come to his storm shelter, he expected them to brush him off as they had before. But this time they listened. With just four minutes to spare, five adults, four children and four cats climbed down into the small, underground room and waited.
“We heard a whistling sound,” Stewart, 63, said. “Then it turned into a roar.”
As the tornado hit, the handle to the shelter loosened and Stewart climbed up the stairs to hold it down. His wife worried he would get pulled out. He described other neighbors and church friends who did not survive: a county judge, a baby, a young man.
Stewart lost half of his roof, and his garage was lifted across his yard. He had lived there for 19 years but cannot envision returning.
“We’re not going to come back,” he said.
Hit at 11:20 p.m.
In a way, Clarence Dudley Bartlett was one of the lucky ones. At least that is how he tried to see it.
His house — his family’s home for generations — was beyond repair. So was his car. Still, he was alive when so many others were not. If he had been on the first or second floor instead of the basement, he said, “it would have been roses.”
Even so, to be 81 and forced to start over was daunting. “You’re walking around in a field and you don’t know where to go,” Bartlett said. “It’s the best I can explain it.”
Bartlett thought he would get an apartment in town. He would need a car, too. It would be painful to leave behind his house, which would have to be torn down — that is, if the teetering remains did not collapse on their own. His grandfather built it, using a blueprint he bought at a fair in St. Louis. Bartlett was born there in 1940. His parents both died in the front room. That was on his mind as he cataloged what had been lost. “Well, lot of good memories for one thing,” he said.
He had help sorting through the rubble. They picked out photographs and some furniture. They had to dig to find the Christmas presents his sister had recently sent. And there was the gold and blue tea set he treasured. He bought it from a shop in Venice when he had the chance years ago to travel to Europe. “I don’t know how it survived,” he said, “but it did.”