- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

MAYFLOWER, Ark. (AP) - After Louie Short’s home overlooking Lake Conway was reduced to rubble by a half-mile-wide tornado, he emerged from the debris with bruises, a cut arm and the resolve to stake another claim to the kind of life where neighbors help neighbors and the fishing is good.

“We’ll rebuild. That’s the attitude of the people here,” said Short, who moved to Mayflower 32 years ago from Little Rock for easy access to fishing and the outdoors. “I’m going to put something back up here.”

Sunday’s storm killed more than a dozen people in Arkansas as it roared through some 80 miles of the state. The sleepy communities of Mayflower and Vilonia, just north of Little Rock, got pummeled - heaping more misery on towns recently beset with misfortune. Four people died in a 2011 twister that hit Vilonia, and last year Mayflower suffered through a pipeline rupture that sent 200,000 gallons of heavy crude through streets and lawns and threatened a popular fishing hole.

But there’s no self-pity rife among the towns’ residents. Many traded life in a larger city for good schools, a little bit of land and the feeling of knowing who lives next door. Several vowed Tuesday to salvage what they could, haul away the rest and construct something new.

“You walk into a grocery store and they know you,” said Debra Hollingshead, who now has an oak tree across the Mayflower house she’s lived in for five years. “You don’t need a checking account number. They know you by name.”

Two tornadoes hitting the same town three years apart may seem a cruel twist, but people in Vilonia said the warmth of their community trumps anything Mother Nature can throw at them.

“We’ll stay,” said Karen Seeds, whose house was damaged three years ago and destroyed this time. She and her husband, Gary, survived by going in the basement. On Tuesday, rather than focusing on their own needs, they were helping out at their Methodist church since the church had been there to help them.

“We’ll stay in Vilonia, because this is my church and I’ll never leave it,” she said, eyes welling with tears.

The church’s pastor, 29-year-old Nathan Kilbourne, has been in Vilonia less than a year - and faces a big rebuilding job. The sanctuary was destroyed and much of the rest of the church may be a total loss.

“You see it in front of you,” Kilbourne said in describing Vilonia. “We stand on each other’s shoulders. It doesn’t matter about structures. It’s the people here that keep people here.”

People like those who helped Jennifer Scott, taking her and her family to another home for shelter after their house collapsed. Scott, her husband, Shon and their two teenage children huddled in a bathroom at the height of the tornado. The kids were in the bathtub when “we felt them flying away,” Scott said. “We couldn’t catch them.”

The tub turned upside down - but the wind kept the kids inside instead of sweeping them out. And the tub landed atop them - protecting them from the debris of the house that fell around them.

Along stretches of damaged houses in both towns, volunteers with chainsaws cleared trees from across homes, driveways and streets. Backhoes and bulldozers cleared lots down to the slabs and utility crews strung power lines. A cellphone tower in Vilonia downed at the height of the storm was already replaced. Insurance companies set up shop out of tents and vans to assist people.

Volunteers seemed to be everywhere, with dozens of people at home sites, helping residents sort through the debris to find family photos and financial documents.

Fred Muawad, who lost his popular Daylight Donuts shop in the storm, didn’t have insurance and he’s not sure if the strip mall where his shop was located will be rebuilt - but knows Vilonia is behind him.

“This community has been great to me - we’ve been one big family for 11 years,” Muawad said. “We’ve been through good times and bad.”

But Mayflower resident Theresa Long, 51, said she had been looking for a sign about moving back to North Little Rock to live near her parents - and believes she received one when the storm sheared off three-quarters of her roof.

“I can always come back and do my fishing here any time I want,” Long said.

___

Salter reported from Vilonia, Ark. Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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