As we wrap up our Christmas shopping and attend to our last-minute holiday to-do lists here in the Ozarks, a rural-Arkansas sister community is just figuring out what tomorrow looks like.
It is my hometown of Monette, Arkansas.
You could feel it in the air as early as daybreak last Friday morning. Even in Round Bottom Valley there was an eerie calmness, the kind of quiet where leaves on trees don’t even move and the only sound is your heart beating inside your chest. All the signs were present. Bad weather was coming. The only question – where would it strike and how bad would it be?
Over the decades here in the heart of tornado alley, we’ve learned just about all the lessons possible to protect our lives. We installed a “tornado shelter,” essentially a concrete barricade buried six feet deep at our Tranquility Base just last summer. But there’s no escaping the vulnerability of property, and when a tornado, or a flood, or an earthquake or any other natural disaster decides it’s coming your way, all you can really do is watch. And pray.
Of course, we’re not unfamiliar with how this works here in Stone County. Just a few weeks ago we experienced a strong thunderstorm and an earthquake in the same evening. And there’s the mighty White. When those waters rage, the river has a life of its own. Everyone here remembers the dual devastation of floods and tornadoes in 2008.
The live television weather reports started breaking last Friday night around 5 p.m. You knew we were in for a long night, and by that time the questions were not “if” or even “when,” but where.
The answer became clear shortly. Somewhere around Trumann in central Poinsett County. The path closely resembled one from a major tornado outbreak in April 1984. I was 18 years old and saw no fewer than 40 funnel clouds and four tornadoes on the ground that day.
In the wake of considerable damage in Trumann, the tornado skipped and jumped due northeasterly, steadily gaining strength as what some meteorologists say could be the strongest tornado on record and taking a path 250 miles long and ultimately claiming 70 lives. The powerful twister may have reached wind speeds of 300 miles per hour.
Monette Manor, a small community nursing home facility with about 70 residents and just 30 miles northeast was directly in the path.
Barbara Richards, a licensed practical nurse at the facility saw it coming as she looked through the facility’s western glass doors. It was headed straight at them illuminated by almost constant lightning.
With warnings about, she and other employees had already gathered residents in the hallways and lined them with mattresses and other protective measures.
Then, all they could do was wait.
The storm hit suddenly as Richards and other staff members literally shielded residents covering them with their own bodies. The windows exploded and flying debris struck one resident in the head. Circulating winds raged through the nursing home, all the while Richards led the residents in singing hymns and speaking prayers out loud. The wind ripped pillows from their hands.
They sang “all different hymns, whatever ones they could think of — anything to get them thinking about something else,” she said in a report published in The Washington Post.
It was over in moments, one resident dead, dozens of others trapped, and the storm plowed onward another 200 miles.
Not everyone in our small hometown has a family member at Monette Manor, but everyone knows someone there. Farmers, retired teachers, church leaders, maybe even the sweet, widowed woman who taught you Sunday School when you were a child and now walks with a cane and a failing memory of just all the ways she’s contributed to the rural community and its way of life.
They are people that we love.
It’s bound to be a strange holiday season in Monette, Arkansas. A paradox of sorts. On the one hand, so much loss and sadness. On the other, gratitude for all the lives spared and a renewed spirit of determination that makes rural America what it is. They’ll be back.
God bless my little hometown and its people.
If you’d like to contribute or help some way with a clothing donation, a gift of cash, or whatever else you’d like to give, contact the Monette Church of Christ, 702 West Drew Avenue or call 870-486-2635.
(Steve Watkins is a writer/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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