Tornado sirens sounding off Friday night and Saturday had Crawford County residents looking for safe shelter from heavy-hitting thunderstorms.
Tornado warnings issued by the National Weather service were in effect in Crawford County off and on from Friday evening to Saturday evening, with storms going on until early Sunday morning.
Crawford County Emergency Management Director Brad Thomas said the National Weather Service confirmed that an EF-1 tornado hit about two miles north of Natural Dam in Crawford County early Saturday morning, with winds of 90-100 miles per hour.
At a property on Arkansas 59 known to locals as the horse ranch, the tornado uprooted trees, snapped large tree limbs and destroyed an outbuilding.
Damage to the rest of the county was minimal. According to a report from the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, one home and seven roads sustained damage from the storm.
While several roads, culverts and bridge approaches were washed out from flood waters, Thomas said the county did not lose any major structures.
“We dodged a major bullet so far,” Thomas said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has declared a state of emergency for Arkansas along with 18 counties that have submitted verbal disaster declarations.
While county officials are still assessing damages, Thomas has no reasonable expectation that Crawford County will follow suit, he said.
Many residents fled to area tornado shelters for safety on Friday and Saturday. Tornado shelters, or saferooms, can be found in Alma, Cedarville, Mulberry and Van Buren.
In Cedarville, Mulberry and Van Buren, the saferooms are opened with keys, school and city officials said.
Locks on Alma’s saferooms are connected to the county’s emergency warning system, said Alma Assistant Superintendent Mike McSpadden.
“As soon as the sirens sound, the doors automatically unlock,” McSpadden said. “If there is a tornado warning issued anywhere in Crawford County, the sirens sound and our saferooms open.”
Each location has a saferoom manager and back up manager assigned to go to the site and supervise while the tornado warning is being issued, McSpadden said.
Van Buren School District also has saferoom facility managers, and it is their job to open the saferooms, said Van Buren Assistant Superintendent Brian Summerhill.
Van Buren Senior Inn holds the only other saferoom in Van Buren, and it’s opened by David Martin, the City of Van Buren building official, when he hears the sirens go off, he said.
In Van Buren, Alma and Cedarville, the saferooms are only opened for a tornado warning, but Summerhill said the school district will try to give the site managers notice when the weather holds the potential for a tornado.
“We try to be overly cautious and I think in the past we’ve done pretty well,” Summerhill said.
There was some communication issues that led to a delay in two VBSD saferooms being opened quickly on Friday night, but Summerhill said the situation was rectified.
“Our goal is to make sure everyone is safe as quickly as possible under a tornado warning,” Summerhill said.
Mulberry opens its saferooms when there is a tornado watch in effect, said Mulberry Mayor Gary Baxter.
“It has seemed to work well for our community,” Baxter said.
Emergency responders at the city police and fire departments are responsible for opening the saferooms in Mulberry and Cedarville, said Baxter and Cedarville Superintendent Kerry Schneider.
“The agreement that we have with them is that they will open it as soon as they can at the time the warning is announced,” Schneider said.
All city and school officials said the saferooms are closed as soon as the tornado warning expires.
Crawford County tornado shelters are as follows:
• Alma Intermediate School at 1220 W. Collum Lane.
• Alma Primary School at 1600 E. U.S. 64.
• Alma Middle School at 706 E. U.S. 64.
• Alma High School at 101 E. Main St.
• Cedarville Elementary School campus at 9335 Armer Lane.
• Marvin Primary School at 1319 North Main St.
• Mulberry Senior Center at 406 E. U.S. 64.
• Rena Elementary School at 720 Rena Road.
• Parkview Elementary School at 605 Parkview St.
• Tate Elementary School at 406 Catcher Road.
• King Elementary School at 401 North 19th St.
• Butterfield Trail Middle School at 310 11th St.
• Van Buren High School Freshman Academy at 821 Pointer Trail.
• VBHS at 2001 Pointer Trail.
• Van Buren Senior Center at 607 Knox St.