When Stephanie Tounzen addressed the Van Buren City Council near the close of its December meeting she wasn’t sure what results she would receive in regard to the topic she would be presenting to the council.
Tounzen, speaking on behalf of her neighbors who had been affected by the November tornado that hit the Sandstone Drive area of Van Buren, was simply trying to get relief for the neighborhood and its mounds of debris that had been gathered up in the wake of the tornado.
She left that meeting feeling unsure of what results would be produced.
“In the beginning (after the meeting) I was kind of at a loss,” she said. “I kind of had a bad taste in my mouth about it, but I was just going to figure out where to pick up the pieces.”
Residents had been doing a lot of picking up of pieces – both large and small – in the days following the tornado, building large curbside piles of debris. But insurance regulations, coupled with the fact the city hadn’t endured enough damage to qualify for any state or federal assistance to aid in the cleanup, left residents with more debris than they could handle.
“My purpose at the meeting was to point out that we’ve got a problem, we’ve got a problem and we’ve got to get it taken care of,” said Tounzen. “Individuals couldn’t just work in their own yards and get all the debris picked up. It’s just too much. It takes an army to haul this stuff off.”
She also wasn’t at the meeting to put the blame on any one entity or individual.
“I wasn’t there to pinpoint and say, ‘This is your fault, this is your problem, not ours,’” she assured. “No one asked for this at all. I was just trying to get some assistance, just asking for help. We’ve got a problem, what can you do for us?”
As the morning of Jan. 12 dawned any worries that remained began to melt away. Thanks to her post-meeting work, as well as some cooperation from other individuals and organizations, an estimated 300 people showed up in the neighborhood to fill extra dumpsters that had been brought in, many bringing their own personal trailers and equipment to help haul away as much debris as possible.
“Seeing all the volunteers from the churches and other organizations, and a lot of individuals, all the community involvement, has been so rewarding to see that everyone can come together after a disaster,” said Tounzen.
Trust and Obey Ministries brought breakfast and coffee and set up a break area in Tounzen’s garage and one person hauled a trailer of debris to his own property where he planned to burn it at a later date.
“We had people here from Greenwood, Fort Smith, Mountainburg … when we got the word out we had a great response,” said Tounzen. “It’s very humbling and very rewarding to see all of them come out. I don’t know these people and they don’t know me. To see them and thank them, I feel like it’s just not enough.”
The help wasn’t limited to just that cold, gray Saturday. There was plenty of work that was done in the days leading up to the cleanup.
“I talked with Tyler Wood, who is the alderman for this area, and he said, ‘I want to help you guys. I don’t know how I can help you, but if we can figure out something I’ll help you get volunteers together,’” said Tounzen. “That was a tremendous help, just having someone say, ‘I’ll help you,’ even if the city couldn’t back us up.”
She added, “The (new) mayor (Joe Hurst) had a positive attitude; he just couldn’t say anything at the time because he wasn’t the mayor yet. With all that and the transition … and people like Linda Bagby created a Facebook event and shared it, and we went back and forth talking about it with some churches in the community and it really spread like fire.”
Wood, who was there during the cleanup, bundled up against the cold while hauling trash to any available dumpster, said he was amazed to see an event like this grow out of residents coming forward, presenting a need and asking for help.
“Once you get a few people involved it can really take off,” he said. “I started a Facebook message group of about eight people. We got the churches involved and people that could get the word out and the response was overwhelming. It’s such an awesome thing to see the turnout we had today. It was beyond anything we could have imagined.”
Many of the volunteers hadn’t seen the devastation the tornado left behind before arriving to help with the cleanup project and were surprised at not only the amount of damage, but also its randomness.
“I think the devastation surprised everybody who hadn’t been out here yet,” Wood said. “Just to see the extent … you go down one street and there’s a little bit of damage, two streets over there’s nothing and then you get here and it’s total devastation. I wish everyone could have seen how bad it was (before Saturday’s event) and maybe more people would have come out. But this was a great response and I just could not be happier with the way things have gone.”
Wood was also pleased to see the cooperation between the various factions represented at the cleanup.
“This is all churches and residents, the community,” he said. “And that’s the coolest thing, that it all flowed together and wasn’t just churches or government. It is churches working with government working with the residents all together, which is basically what you should have in a community.”
He continued, “We didn’t just throw money at this and try to fix it, it was (a matter of) what can we do to all come together and find a solution, and the solution we found was probably better than any one group could put together.”
Most of the work centered on the streets of Sandstone, Pearl and Quartz. Five dumpsters were filled in the first couple of hours of the cleanup. Approximately four or five more dumpsters were brought in and were quickly filled.
For a neighborhood that’s experienced quite a few gray days since Nov.30, Saturday’s chilly cleanup under cloudy skies went a long way to replacing piles of debris with smiles and positive thoughts.
“Even though it’s been six weeks, we’re still dealing with all of this,” said Tounzen. “Coming home and having to figure out what the insurance company is going to pay for, moving debris, how do we get this out of here, just taking the next step and seeing all the volunteers come out and help us with this healing process is just a tremendous amount of help.”
She added, “God has taken over for sure.”