Heavy rain and lightning enveloped Lauren Morrow’s car as she sped home from her job at Chenal Health and Fitness in Little Rock on April 27, 2014. She knew the storm was bad, but it didn’t worry her too much.
Even when her friends and mother, Danielle, frantically texted her, Lauren remained calm.
“I was just driving home, no big deal,” she said.
She pulled into the driveway of her Vilonia home around 7:45 p.m. Still no panic. The same could not be said for her family. She opened the front door to a household in chaos with her mom, her brother, Reece, and his girlfriend, Hailey, darting around the house.
Even that didn’t shake her. Her mind flashed back to the EF2 tornado that hit her town three years earlier. The twister skipped her house, which imbued her with a sense of security. While everyone else panicked, Lauren stood off to the side, holding her cat, drinking her tea and watching a TV show. Suddenly, she felt the pressure in the house change. Her calmness melted into fear.
Lauren grabbed everything important to a high school junior – keys, iPhone and phone charger – and dove in a closet with her mother. The bathtub was full, too: Reece and Hailey lay there gripping a mattress pulled over them.
She could hear the hail pounding the house like 100 rounds of an automatic weapon. Then the windows shattered.
“I love you,” Lauren’s mom said.
Then the walls ripped apart.
The tornado sucked the pair out of the closet. Lauren grabbed her mom’s ankle and was hit in the head with debris twice before blacking out. All she remembers is begging not to die.
Faith Despite Destruction
On a cool, rainy Sunday morning in late March, 11 months after the deadly tornado, members of Vilonia United Methodist Church park in a gravel lot that gives way to mud.
When the faithful walk through the church doors, they enter a large, open room with metal walls. It feels more like a gymnasium than hallowed ground.
Four windows on each side allow fragments of sunlight to filter into the sanctuary, which includes a stage for the choir and pastor, and more than 160 chairs for the congregation.
Before the service begins, a church leader stands on the stage and asks if anyone in the crowd has a joy they would like to share. An elderly woman in the back row raises her hand and stands.
“The beautiful spring flowers and green grass,” she says.
It’s been nearly a year since the tornado hit Vilonia. For the town’s 4,200 residents, it’s a comforting sight to see signs of spring – even though they signal that tornado season is on its way.
Vilonia, which was struck twice in three years, is still recovering from the EF4 tornado – a rating given to only 1.5 percent of tornadoes in Arkansas since 1950 – that killed eight people and destroyed 159 homes in April 2014.
This spring, no amount of flowers or grass can obscure the destruction that still hangs over the small Faulkner County town.
About a minute after I pass the city limit sign – which proclaims Vilonia as the 2013 Arkansas Volunteer Community of the Year – I notice the trees are twisted and bare. Debris sprinkles the fields. Then come the lonely slabs of concrete, where businesses once stood.
However, as the one-year anniversary of the storm approaches, the town is showing signs of progress amidst the ever-present reminders of tragedy.
The Dollar General has been rebuilt and is open. Keith’s Service Center, which performed oil changes and changed flat tires within three days of the tornado, has a new building nearing completion.
Just past the service center, Vilonia United Methodist Church sits at the corner of Main and Church streets.
The tornado leveled the basketball gym the church had converted into a place of worship when it outgrew its original sanctuary. With insurance money, the church is rebuilding while holding services in a trailer. Church members will move into their new home Feb. 22.
“We still got a mess out here, but we’re blessed to be able to come back like this,” says Fred Fowlkes, the church leader who spoke to the congregation before the service. “It’s amazing what’s been done.”
Fowlkes gives thanks for the sanctuary, the compact office building and rooms for Sunday school.
When Lauren hit the ground and regained consciousness, she still had her life, but one of her Nike shoes had been ripped off, and she was bleeding from two gashes on her head. Lauren and her mom were in a field 100 yards from their house, so Lauren – with one foot bare – navigated through darkness and destruction in search of help.
The crash had cracked Lauren’s iPhone, and blood covered the screen. Still, it worked.
Her house was obliterated. The twister threw her car through the air, too. It landed a few feet away from the bathtub, where Reece and Hailey were unharmed.
Making their way farther into town, a high school friend gave Lauren one of his Vans that survived the storm. She took it and wandered through the debris with one Nike and one Van.
A woman driving a small hatchback found the group and gave them a ride to the Conway hospital, where Lauren sat in a crowded waiting room for two and a half hours. The two gashes were taking a toll.
She slipped into a coma.
Helping to Restore
When church is dismissed, I follow several members across the street to eat lunch at a local restaurant called, What’s for Dinner?
Clouds hung over Vilonia that day – not in a menacing way, but thick and dreary. Inside the restaurant, gloom gives way to fried chicken, chicken fried steak, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy.
Customers go to the front of the restaurant, and servers scoop food onto their trays. When diners reach the end of the line, they pay Amy Tucker, who owns the establishment with her husband Clint.
Amy is a lifelong resident of Vilonia. When the 2014 tornado hit, it wasn’t anything new for the 39 year old. Since 1950, there have been 14 reported tornadoes within 7 miles of the town.
Emerging from their shelter after the twister, Amy, Clint and their two oldest kids – ages 9 and 11 – volunteered in the town’s recovery effort.
For a while, any time off from work was spent volunteering at the high school gym, where they distributed food and water to victims. Then one day, as Amy and her husband were driving through town, she said, “There is nothing in Vilonia right now. We ought to build a little restaurant.”
What seemed like an easy task quickly became complicated. The couple bought a 62-year-old house that was damaged in the storm, but Amy thought Clint, who works in the remodeling business, could fix it up.
After crunching the numbers, they realized it would be too costly to renovate, so they donated it to the volunteer fire department and started from scratch.
They began building in August 2014 and opened in November. Amy quit her job in Conway and started working again in her hometown, where she got her first job at a Dairy Queen and learned how to properly mop a floor.
She tries to give that same opportunity to today’s teenagers by hiring high school kids. Two Vilonia High School students who work for her have earned scholarships to culinary school.
“It’s not just about my family,” Amy says. “It’s about this community. I hire people out of the community because how else can kids get a job at 16 years old in Vilonia?”
The Tuckers’ restaurant is a post-tornado triumph, but it’s the only new business in town.
“It’s kind of sad,” Amy says. “I wish some more people would come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take a chance.’ I’ve put my whole life in it, and hopefully it works out.”
Patching Up Pets
As the owner of the Vilonia Animal Clinic, Paul Jenkins emerged from his storm cellar April 27, 2014, knowing there was a good chance he would be patching up more animals than usual in the near future.
The storm knocked out electricity across the city, so Jenkins resorted to flashlights and car lights before getting a generator in order to operate on a client’s horse in his first post-tornado surgery.
He got about an hour or two of sleep that night before jumping into surgeries the next day. In the week following the tornado, Jenkins struggled to sleep. Animals were piling up. Even when he did have time to sleep, stress worked at his nerves.
“It was the most devastating type of injuries I’d ever seen,” says Jenkins, who graduated from the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. “A lot of them were so catastrophic, we couldn’t save the animals.”
Animals continued to come into the clinic for a week, and veterinarians from other communities volunteered their services.
Their hard work was rewarded when owners and their pets were reunited, but even that was sometimes difficult to watch.
“It was a blessing that their owners were getting rejoined with them, but you saw that’s all they had,” Jenkins says. “A lot of them completely lost everything.”
James Firestone didn’t really want to be Vilonia’s mayor, but he took the position in July 2008 when Mayor Ken Belote resigned because of poor health.
Serving on the city council at the time, Firestone planned on retiring from city politics after nearly 30 years, but he was persuaded to lead the town, where he has lived all 61 years of his life.
Through no doing of his own, Vilonia looks much different from when he took office as mayor.
“Used to, there were a lot of trees,” Firestone says. “The trees were really thick. It seems funny to me, but now you can see almost from one end of town to the other.”
Firestone takes me on a tornado tour, a grim duty that’s part of the job he has come to love. He points out every structure that was in the path of the tornado. He knows most of the owners by name: Mr. Jones’ rodeo arena was blown away, the Fraziers’ house was destroyed, the Scroggins lost their entire herd of cattle. The list goes on and on.
On Mount Olive Road, he slows down when he reaches the Vilonia Intermediate School, which will include grades four through six.
Just two months from completion, the tornado destroyed the school. It did not have a safe room. Instead, the school’s hallways were built with reinforced concrete, designed as a safe area in severe weather.
After the April 27 storm, officials realized there was a flaw in the design. The walls were still standing, but the doors were blown in, allowing debris to tear through the halls.
“It would have been terrible if it had been full of kids,” Firestone says.
A year after the original completion date, it was turned over to the school district in June 2015. When students walk the halls this fall, they’ll do so in the same concrete-reinforced hallways but with re-engineered doors.
In the Parkwood Meadows subdivision, Firestone pauses. Here, he says, 55 of the 56 houses were completely destroyed. The surviving house sustained significant damage.
Most residents at Parkwood Meadows took shelter in the safe room at nearby Vilonia High School because the first tornado warning rang 41 minutes before the storm hit.
The Wassom family decided to stay and take cover in the hallway, where Daniel, 31, shielded his wife and two daughters. His family survived, but Daniel did not. Their home was destroyed.
“The saddest thing I remember was about 2 o’clock in the morning, Daniel’s dad was sitting there with his son’s body on that slab, just holding his hand until the coroner came,” Firestone says. “I’ll never forget the sight of that.”
The coma forced a doctor to finally look at Lauren. Debris in her blonde hair had hidden the severity of her wounds. Once the debris was removed, a nurse said she would have died if they had waited a second longer.
She needed 17 staples in her head and a neck brace. She also had two cracked ribs, a black eye, cuts on her face and eyebrows, cuts and bruises up and down her legs and a traumatic concussion. Her mom was practically unscathed, with only minor cuts and bruises.
Lauren went home that night but could not stand without vomiting. The doctors told her later that she should have stayed overnight, but because the hospital was crowded, she was allowed to go to her grandparents’ house in Heber Springs, 45 minutes north of her battered hometown.
About one month into rehab, she had to go back to the hospital because bacteria had gotten into her body.
Doctors diagnosed her with ANUG – acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis – a rare disease that caused her gums to peel off. It nearly took her teeth.
Despite fears that people would leave Vilonia in droves, Firestone says he doesn’t know of any longtime residents who left, and enrollment in the school district has actually increased.
With a population that grew 86 percent from 1990 to 2000 and 81 percent from 2000 to 2010, Firestone says he is using the tornado as motivation to look toward the future.
A movement called Rebuild Vilonia has designs for a town square that would include a farmers’ market, a park, a retail center and a residential area to accommodate future growth.
Firestone envisions a boulevard with a divided median, as well as other roads that would connect dead-end streets. Vilonia has already received a $201,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to extend Industrial Drive to Cemetery Street.
“In a little town like Vilonia that’s been here forever, there’s no planning, no thought about what you’re going to be 20 years down the road,” Firestone says. “This gives us an opportunity to come in and develop a center area.”
Rebuilding the town’s recreational sports complex is high on Firestone’s agenda because it is a key community center. When fall and summer baseball seasons rolled around last year, people had to go to surrounding areas to play.
When an outside government official suggested spending less on sports facilities, Firestone laughed and said, “We’d get strung up by our heels if we didn’t build all the ball fields back.”
Still, the threat of another tornado looms.
Keith Hillman has seen his job title evolve from fire chief to director of emergency operations and is in charge of tornado drills in the schools. In the spring semester, Hillman led a drill in which 1,700 middle school students were loaded onto buses and taken a mile up the road to the high school’s safe room in less than 20 minutes.
Officials also plan to build storm shelters that will be clearly marked as designated safe areas throughout the city. They are opting for several small shelters instead of one large shelter because warning times for tornadoes are usually short.
Firestone says he is continuously looking to improve Rebuild Vilonia plans. The worst thing he could do is to do nothing, he says.
“It was a very unfortunate thing, and we could have sat back and said, ‘Oh, woe is us. Everybody is going to move away,’ but we’ve still got people here because they want to be in Vilonia,” Firestone says.
Lauren wanted to help with the immediate cleanup, but it took her two and a half months to fully recover from her injuries and the infection.
Instead, she was confined to the back of a truck, where she could watch and talk to her friends as they picked up debris. That bothered Lauren, who had volunteered after the 2011 tornado.
“I wanted to help more than anything,” Lauren says. “They wouldn’t even let me sit up because I’d get sick.”
Still, she was struck by the support Vilonia received. One couple prayed with her in the back of the truck and then gave her family $500. Her family tried giving it back, but the unknown husband and wife insisted.
Lauren healed and graduated from Vilonia High School in May with plans to attend the University of Central Arkansas this fall.
Two tornadoes in a three-year span have not scared her family into moving away. They rent a house in Vilonia while rebuilding their old home.
“We like living here,” Lauren says. “We all know each other. It’s a strong community.”
In the meantime, she isn’t working in Little Rock anymore.
She has a new job working for Amy Tucker at What’s for Dinner?