Tornado Devastates Arkansas Town - The New York Times

Tornado Devastates Arkansas Town – The New York Times

Melisa Swearingen woke up early on Sunday morning as a tornado bore down on her home in the northwestern corner of Arkansas. As she raced down the stairs with her toddler, she looked out the window and saw a 40-foot tree falling toward the house.

“The whole house was shaking like a roller coaster,” Ms. Swearingen said in an interview outside her home. “I thought, This was it.”

But the tree smashed through a room above the family’s garage, giving her time to gather her 7-year-old son. As another tree crushed the other side of the home, she, her husband and their children huddled in a first-floor bedroom. “I thought the house would be torn open and we’d get suctioned up,” Ms. Swearingen, 35, said.

Nearby, Byron Copeland, 38, had sent his wife, their three children and the family dogs to the basement, while he monitored the storm. Then came the terrifying booms of exploding electrical transformers. “I ran toward the basement like a little girl,” Mr. Copeland said. As they waited for the weather to pass, he said, the family sang the lullaby “Jesus Loves Me.”

The Swearingens and the Copelands were among the millions of families whose lives were upended by the rash of tornadoes that ravaged parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Kentucky over Memorial Day weekend. At least 23 people were killed, including eight people in Arkansas.

One of the hardest hit towns was Rogers, Ark., a city situated between the Walmart headquarters in Bentonville and Arkansas’s largest state park. Nearly two-thirds of Rogers lost power. Downed trees have made it difficult to move about. And Rogers’s mayor, Greg Hines, had to make his way through the limbs of a 120-year-old maple tree that blocked his front door before he could take a helicopter tour of the damage.

“You could see tops of trees just shaved off. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mr. Hines said.

The tornadoes tossed trucks onto their sides and tore apart buildings and homes. At nearby Beaver Lake, storms ripped from the shore a 20-slip dock, which was found floating in the lake with boats still attached.

A tree on Fifth and Cypress Streets hit a fire hydrant, setting off a geyser that flooded the road. And a 250-year-old catalpa tree was destroyed.

Mr. Hines said he hoped that by sundown on Monday all roads would have at least one passable lane, and that on Tuesday the city would open a command center to help people obtain housing and food assistance.

He estimated that more than 30,000 people in Rogers did not have power, but that most of them could be back online in the next few days.

People in Rogers said they were determined to repair and soldier on as a community.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders visited the remains of the beloved Susie Q Malt Shop, which has operated for nearly 64 years. Tornadoes had torn off the roof and knocked down walls, exposing the kitchen and the soda fountain. Not much was upright but the heavy steel freezer.

In a video of the rubble taken by a local photographer, packs of Oreo cookies were visible in cupboards whose tops were blown off. One of the building’s walls remained intact, with the Susie Q menu painted across it in pink and turquoise.

Mayor Hines said that even amid such widespread devastation, losing Susie Q was particularly painful. “I got maybe 18 to 22 photos sent to me from constituents,” he said. “Every single one was of this building — not their own houses. That underscores what this building means to this community.”

In downtown Rogers on Monday, a city worker used a backhoe to remove branches and deposit them on lawns. Residents spent much of Memorial Day clearing the streets of debris and uprooted trees that had ripped apart pipes and pavement.

“We just keep going,” said Will Swearingen, 40, Melisa’s husband. He and his family plan to live in their house while they rebuild. “Chain saws, water, oil, gas. That’s all we need.”

Nearly two dozen members of the extended Swearingen family live in the Rogers historic district, and they participate in an annual Fourth of July parade through the neighborhood. Up to 300 people attend the celebration, following the route on foot or on horseback, on riding lawn mowers or on golf carts.

As Mr. Swearingen’s cousin, Scott Swearingen, 41, walked through a wilderness of shattered wood, leaves and homes, he pointed to two evergreens that were still standing. That spot is where a large American flag is traditionally draped for Independence Day. The storm will not change that tradition.

“One hundred percent, without a doubt, we’ll have a parade this year,” he said. “One hundred percent.”

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