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OPINION

The Flatlander

Stormy Season Brings Opportunity For Upgrade

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In journalism school, they teach us to avoid them at all costs.

Avoid cliches like the plague, the professors say.
But there’s just no better descriptor for what I heard that night.

It sounded like a train.

•••

I’m a weather watcher. Always have been. My agrarian background makes it so.
In the days before irrigation and precision-leveled land, our livelihoods were even more directly related to the weather than they are today. Today, there are some things we can control. Others, not so much.

Another part of it just naturally comes with being an Arkansan. Depending on whose map you believe, here in Stone County, we live on the outskirts of Tornado Alley, that southwest to northeast stretch where twisters commonly generate during the spring. It only takes a few years living here to know the warning signs.

You step outside early that morning with a cup of coffee and there is a different quiet in the silence. Leaves are dead calm on trees. The air feels a certain way. In those summer months as the conditions form there’s a stickiness in the air that tells you to be on watch.

Two Sundays ago on March 5, the forecasters told us there was a chance of stormy weather. I usually pay attention to these folks as they are typically right on. But I went on about my day and weekend routine that day because something about last Sunday didn’t seem particularly perilous – until it did.

The dark clouds formed slowly in the west just as the sun set across the White River. The sky, backlit with the dusk, didn’t reveal anything particularly ominous, but it was just a few moments until our smartphones emitted that annoying noise signaling bad weather nearby. I walked out onto the porch and heard the eerie distant sound of tornado sirens.

We live in an elevated home on the White River’s banks in the heart of Round Bottom Valley, a flat wide-open space that is beautiful, but also totally vulnerable and exposed to whatever weather approaches. During our construction, the potential hazards impressed me enough that we squeezed an underground storm shelter into the budget knowing that a direct hit here would take our place apart like a house of cards.

With the phones going off and the sirens in the distance, I didn’t need a third prompt. We hit the shelter.

As we stepped down into the concrete bunker, I left the steel door open to scan the skies. And anyway, no need to close that door until this thing gets real, I reasoned. We should be out of here any moment.

It was about that time the lightning ramped up, keeping the sky so frequently lit that I was concerned about what I’d see in the distance. Then a slight ping, another, then another, then a shower of hail raining down on the steel door as I pulled it to. In the deafening icy onslaught, I knew it was real now.

Just across the river on Izard County’s western boundary is a railroad track that accommodates anywhere from three to six trains a day. I gave it no immediate thought in the shelter that night as I heard the familiar sound. Only about the odd timing of a train passing through a bad storm.

And in that moment my brain processed the reality. The sound was no train. There was a tornado out there. My gut knotted up.

There is no feeling quite like sitting helplessly and wondering if the next view of your home will be a splintered pile of rubble. That was exactly what I envisioned listening carefully to the steady roar that for a good two minutes remained constant, seemingly just sitting on one place not getting any closer or further away. And then it was gone.

I have no real knowledge if the tornado was on the ground, but it was nearby, and I was glad to be where I was, safe and protected, prompted by local weather alerts. I’m a believer.

•••

In the coming weeks, the Stone County government and its Office of Emergency Services will renew their efforts encouraging residents to sign up for smartphone notification of inclement weather on days like Sunday, March 5. The county-wide siren system is failing with a siren in complete disrepair in Timbo and another failing in Fox. These 20-year-old sirens can cost $20,000 to replace.

The county’s Everbridge mass notification system is direct and immediate, but fewer than 10 percent of county residents are subscribed.

To create an account online, you may visit the Everbridge site, or stop by the Stone County Library and library personnel will assist you with signing up. For those without internet access you may mail in information listing your name, physical address, mobile phone number, home phone number and email addresses to the Stone County Judge’s Office, 107 West Main, Mountain View, AR 72540.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a writer columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com).

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