- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

MENA, ARK. (AP) - The sirens sounded three times across this western Arkansas hamlet, and residents watched several funnel clouds pass harmlessly over town. The fourth siren was for another twister that ended up being a killer.

While many took cover immediately Thursday night in the basement of the county courthouse, others stayed home, only to glance out their windows just in time to see the black funnel descend on the community just east of the Oklahoma line. At least three people were killed, at least 30 others injured and 600 homes were damaged or destroyed.

“This one popped out of nowhere,” said Polk County Sheriff Mike Oglesby.

The tornado was part of a line of storms that continued wreaking havoc in the South on Friday. The National Weather Service said a tornado destroyed two homes in southwestern Kentucky, and authorities near Nashville, Tenn., said multiple tornado touchdowns were reported.

As daylight broke Friday in Mena, pink insulation hung like cherry blossoms from the sheared branches of century-old maples. The roof of a two-story home sat atop the rubble that once was the floors beneath it, a set of women’s clothes still hanging from a suspended closet rack.

Oglesby said search-and-rescue teams had combed through the city’s downtown and a neighborhood just west that sustained the brunt of the storm without finding any other victims. The sheriff said he had no reports of anyone else missing in the city of 5,700 in the Ouachita Mountains.

An initial survey of the damage suggests the tornado packed winds of at least 136 mph, weather service forecaster John Robinson said Friday.

Basic tornado safety rules call for people, when warned, to go to the lowest floor in a building and put as many walls as possible between themselves and outside.

A warning was posted at 7:24 p.m. Thursday night for areas north of Mena and another one went up for the community at 8:01 p.m. _ nine minutes before it hit. The reason for four separate sirens wasn’t immediately clear, but Robinson said some communities cannot run their sirens continuously because their motors will burn up.

“Everything was well-covered. We said everything was heading straight toward Mena. It’s unfortunate yet,” Robinson.

The twice-monthly meeting of the Mena’s chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star had been going on uninterrupted, the 19 people inside only faintly hearing the sirens through the building’s cinderblock walls, said attendee Thurman Allen.

“We heard the siren two or three times. It would sound off and it would quit,” said Allen, 79. “We were getting ready to get out of the building when it hit.”

The storm tore down the Masonic hall’s walls, collapsing the roof on one woman, killing her, Allen said. Allen was hit with debris and thrown to the floor. The wind bowled over his wife and others inside.

“We had several ladies who it took the shoes right off their feet,” said Fred Key, 37.

Others killed in the Mena storm were found in a collapsed house and in a front yard, said James Reeves, the county’s emergency coordinator. The identities of the two women and a man who died have not been released.

Some residents sought shelter in the Polk County Courthouse, where dispatchers became trapped immediately after the storm. A radio antenna fell over onto part of the beige brick building during the storm, damaging its roof.

Others, like Ken Butler, 40, said they initially dismissed the sirens. Butler could only huddle against a wall as the storm hit, his arms wrapped around an exposed gas pipe.

“The siren was going off in plenty of time, I just didn’t take it serious enough,” Butler said.

The storm plucked his neighbor’s shotgun-style home off its foundation and tossed it about 20 feet away. Across the street, neighbor Edward Cross, 69, said he and his wife Nettie, 66, also didn’t heed the sirens. Instead, he lifted the blinds of his back windows to look out toward the town’s middle school and the courthouse.

At that point, Cross said the “big black cloud” loomed right in front of him.

“I didn’t have time to go nowhere, I just grabbed a hold of the wall and held on,” Cross said. The storm tore away a quarter of their home’s roof.

The violent weather was part of a system that caused damage throughout the South and parts of the Midwest. As the storms moved east, hail and high winds were reported in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Power was out in many parts of the region.

Southeast of Nashville in Rutherford County, a sheriff’s dispatcher said “multiple tornado touchdowns” were reported Friday in various parts of the county.

Brian Smith, general manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in the area along Interstate 24, said he saw a “pretty wide” tornado and that he “could see debris in the air from the rotation.”

A tornado Friday destroyed two homes and knocked down trees and power lines near the community of Mannington, Ky., in Christian County, weather service meteorologist Robin Smith said in Paducah. Smith said the storm also dumped hail, some as large as eggs, throughout Christian and Lyon counties.

The weather service said a woman was injured at Shreveport, La., when a tree fell onto her car during a tornado. Twisters also damaged homes east of Vinita and near Muse in Oklahoma and at Crossett in far southern Arkansas, near the Louisiana line.

Mena’s storm destroyed a city plant that makes gaskets for air conditioners and an ice manufacturer. Small business owners swept up glass from their sidewalks in the downtown in a city known for its remodeled homes from the 1800s and century-old trees, said Prosecutor Tim Williamson.

The town once looked “pastoral,” Williamson said. “It’s not anymore.”

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