Post-tornado disparities told in tale of three cities

A home on Sonora Drive in North Little Rock remains unrepared a year after the tornado, with furniture and condiments visible through the broken windows.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
A home on Sonora Drive in North Little Rock remains unrepared a year after the tornado, with furniture and condiments visible through the broken windows. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

It was the same tornado that struck North Little Rock, Sherwood and Jacksonville on March 31, 2023, as it tore a 32-mile path of destruction through Central Arkansas.

But a year later, what the ongoing recovery looks like in those communities north of the Arkansas River depends on which neighborhood one visits.

[Read more on the March 31, 2023 tornadoes]

On Sonora Drive in North Little Rock, trash and debris recently still filled a vacant, 1,000-square-foot home with no roof. Through a window, the refrigerator in the kitchen could be seen with its door the refrigerator in the kitchen could be seen with its door open, condiments lining the shelf inside the door.

The home is one of seven on the street that were severely damaged by the EF3 twister.

Since then, four have been repaired, while three others, including the one at 5624 Sonora Drive, are scheduled to go before the City Council to be condemned.

A city list of damaged structures indicates the owners of the houses facing demolition couldn't be located.

All told, a survey by the American Red Cross found 201 houses in the city were destroyed or had major damage and an additional 355 had minor damage, Dan Scott, director of North Little Rock's Department of Neighborhood Services, said.

He said four houses have already been demolished and 11, including the three on Sonora Drive, are headed toward the same fate.

Even where houses are being repaired, Scott said, residents' finances often affect the pace of recovery.

"It's a lot easier to repair quickly and get back if you have enough insurance and more disposable income to spend on your property," he said.

"The houses that have been late to start fixing up tend to be owned in a neighborhood that statistically has a lower income than neighborhoods that recover faster." One person, who lived onSonora Drive, died in North Little Rock as a result of the storm, which had already damaged about 3,000 structures in Little Rock before crossing the river.

A separate twister later that day killed four people as it tore through Wynne, destroying the high school and numerous businesses and other structures along the city's main thoroughfare.

At the entrance to Sonora Drive in North Little Rock, Wanda Jones, 60, was home with her nephew when the Central Arkansas storm struck.

"Words can hardly describe it because it was so scary," Jones said. "It was unbelievable.

"We tried to run to a lower level, but we couldn't make it. We just had to hit the floor, and the sound of everything hitting and trees falling -- it's like any moment, the next moment you would die. That's how I felt." Outside, evidence of thetornado's impact was all around.

"When it got quiet, you know, you open the door, and I was in shock," she said. "I mean I literally just lost it because everything was just, it was so different. Trees everywhere, and roofs were gone. It was terrible." Her own house lost windows and sustained massive damage to its roof. A shed in the backyard was destroyed. Unlike some of her neighbors, however, Jones, with the help of insurance coverage, was able to make repairs. She spent six months living with a relative while the work was completed.

Another house on the street that has been repaired is where 76-year-old Matthew McClendon died after the tornado lifted the roof off his house and part of the ceiling came down on the bathtub where he was seeking shelter.

McClendon died from complications from heart disease exacerbated by the trauma, according to the Pulaski County coroner.

In Sherwood, which was next in the tornado's path, at least 229 structures were damaged, according to a city document.

A year later, some streets remain without trees, and blue tarps cover a handful of roofs.

Joshua Alexander, the city's director of community and economic development, said those tarps mean "people are suing their insurance company." "This guy right here, his insurance company went belly up, so he is suing," Alexander said during a recent tour of affected areas. "Everyone else on this street got a new roof already." He called the city "90% recovered." "It's about insurance, that's what it boils down to," Alexander said.

He added that the city's residents are mostly homeowners, which has also helped.

"As a municipality, it's much easier for the city to aid in the process, whether that's to repair or tear down homes, when the homeowner is accessible, but when there are landlords or realty companies that may not even live in the state, it makes it more difficult for the city to take action," he said.

Jacksonville Mayor Jeff Elmore said his city had 180 structures that sustained damage, including 11 businesses, four churches and a former school building.

In a statement, the city said it "does not have an exact number of how many residences are still in the clean-up process." "While there are a few homes that have not begun clean-up, a majority that were affected in Jacksonville have made repairs," the city said in the statement.

"The people of Jacksonville united together to assist their fellow residents and neighbors in the recovery and clean-up in the weeks and months following March 31."

In North Little Rock, Mayor Terry Hartwick applauded workers with his city's Neighborhood Services Department, who he said went door to door to damaged homes, and others who helped in the storm's immediate aftermath.

"It was amazing, that the city -- my city -- that people came from other neighborhoods that [weren't hit and] brought chainsaws to places that were hit and started cutting up trees," he said.

DAMAGE TO PARKS

In addition to damaging homes, the tornado uprooted thousands of trees across the three cities and caused millions of dollars in damage to city parks.

North Little Rock's tab so far is nearly $31.1 million, Chief Financial Officer Ember Strange said.

"That's debris cleanup, reimbursement for emergency protective measures, damage to our buildings and our infrastructure," Strange said.

On debris cleanup alone, the city spent $18.3 million. Of that amount, she said the city has been reimbursed $14.2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Another roughly $700,000 from FEMA is pending.

The city's Burns Park suffered both the direct impact of the storm, including the loss of 15,000 trees, and from serving as a site for trucks to drop off debris.

Portions of the 1,700-acre park remained closed for months as repairs were made to soccer fields, tennis courts, disc golf courses, baseball fields and surrounding roads.

Most of the park's facilities had reopened by February. Its amusement park, Funland, is scheduled for a grand reopening on July 4.

"We're really excited about what we've done to the park," Kenny Stephens, director of North Little Rock's Parks and Recreation, Safety and Traffic departments, said last month. "You know, the park looks great, not as good as it once did, but we're going to get there, and it's going to be bigger and better." Sherwood, which benefited from a disaster recovery contract that North Little Rock had in place before the storm, has spent $1,313,689 on recovery efforts, according Colleen Young, finance director of the city.

"Of this amount, $351,388 has been reimbursed by FEMA. We anticipate receiving additional reimbursements by FEMA of up to $844,382," Young said, adding that some work on city facilities is ongoing.

Jacksonville has spent $4,409,910.29 on repairs and other work, with insurance paying $3,514,589.18 and FEMA paying $640,215.24, city spokesperson Emily Sundermeier said.

Dupree Park "experienced extensive damage," the city said in its statement.

"Numerous repairs and additions to Dupree Park, such as new fencing and the opening of the Marshall Smith Inclusive Playground, have been made," the statement continued.

"The Jacksonville High School baseball team, recreational league teams and tournament teams are once again utilizing Dupree Park for practices and games, and the City anticipates the park to resume hosting summer tournaments this year. We are proud of the progress the City has made in terms of clean-up since last March's tornado, and we celebrate all of the good that is happening and the changes that are taking place."

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