As everyone knows, large sections of the City of Gassville were hit hard by a powerful tornado that swept through town this past Tuesday evening causing massive property damage, one death, and many injuries. I have lived in Gassville my entire life, and I have never before seen destruction of this magnitude anywhere in Baxter County. It absolutely looks like a war zone in the worst areas in the City. I was immediately astonished that more people weren't killed or very seriously injured by this violent twister.
I was in Mountain Home when I first heard the warning sirens sound. I called the Sheriff's Office dispatcher and learned that a tornado warning was in effect with a tornado being reported nine miles South of Gassville tracking Northeast. I immediately headed toward Gassville, but the storm had already past through leaving all this destruction in its path before I arrived about 10-15 minutes later.
What I found was something truly terrible to see. Words can hardly describe it. House after house, business after business had been mangled and destroyed. Power poles were snapped, power lines down across roadways and around residences. Trees were uprooted, twisted, and broken apart. It was pitch black dark and the rain was heavily falling and the temperature steadily dropping. Urgent calls for help were being received from the Sunny South mobile home park on Cotter Road and many other places in the City.
The Sheriff gave the order for all Baxter County Deputies and Reserve Deputies to be paged out to respond to Gassville. We were going to need everyone we had on staff for this emergency. When I arrived at the Gassville City Hall, I found that several firefighters and first responders, as well as law enforcement officers, city officials and workers, and many volunteers were already assembling.
The top priority was to assemble teams to immediately start going door to door at each residence in the affected areas to try to see if those living in those damaged homes were safe or needed emergency medical assistance. Next, we needed to seal off those areas to keep all but emergency responders out. The damage was too widespread and the unknown dangers were far too great to allow the public access to those areas. Power lines were down everywhere and several natural gas leaks had been reported. Many structures were too badly damaged to be entered by anyone other than emergency responders who were properly trained and experienced.
Emergency teams made a first, initial door to door sweep of those areas. Anyone needing medical attention or other immediate needs were attended to. Those people who were safe and not in immediate danger needed to try and stay put until we could coordinate and set up temporary shelter facilities and transportation to them. The team I went out with covered much of South School Street, Factory Street, South and North Johnson Street, Buford Cutoff, and Hopper Street. Several other teams covered other areas.
Once that initial sweep was made, it was time to gather leaders of the emergency services together to start putting together a more thorough response plan. By this time, a special response van from the Mountain Home Fire Department had arrived at a central location near city hall. It was equipped with several radio systems and a work area, so this was to be used as our temporary command center. The Sheriff and I, Gassville Mayor Smith, Police Chief Mayfield, Fire Chief Johnson, County Judge Hall, OEM Director Fischer, Captain Harp of the Arkansas State Police Harrison Office, and Mountain Home Fire Officials formed the incident command team. It was eventually decided that a second, more thorough door to door search would be conducted, and all persons still remaining in those areas would be evacuated to temporary shelters that had been set up at both the Cotter High School and Mountain Home High School. We realized that many people would not respond positively to being evacuated from their homes and away from their belongings, but there was no choice. Most of those structures would be uninhabitable, and there would be no power restored for days. All in all, however, we encountered very little resistance to the evacuation. It went pretty smoothly. Deputies and volunteers transported people to waiting school buses at the City Hall, who then transported them to the school shelters.
There were several people from the Sunny South mobile home park who had not been accounted for. There whereabouts were unknown. It had to become a priority to try and track these people down, and deputies began working on this immediately. Another big concern was providing security and protection in the entire city. We realized that a substantial amount of law enforcement manpower would be needed for an extensive period of time, and we had to begin trying to set up rotating work schedules. Mayor Smith declared a city-wide state of emergency and imposed a dusk to dawn curfew beginning Wednesday evening. If you didn't live in Gassville and weren't an emergency worker or volunteer worker, then you weren't going to be allowed in Gassville after dark.
There was an outpouring of offers of assistance from other law enforcement agencies in this part of the state, volunteer firefighters and trained medical personnel from all over the area, and members of the public who wanted to volunteer and help in any way they could. It was just overwhelming. The Salvation Army, Red Cross, and other emergency relief organizations wasted no time in coming to Gassville. They have been invaluable in providing food, drinks, shelter, clothing, and many other items to those in need and to the emergency workers and volunteers on scene. Retailers such as Wal Mart, Lowes, Home Depot, Yelcot Telephone Company, Nima's Pizza, McDonald's, several area hardware stores, ASUMH, and many other businesses and restaurants contributed large quantities of goods and merchandise to be used as needed. I'd mention all the others by name too if only I could remember them right now. They don't know how much everyone truly appreciated it.
I also must highly commend the public utility companies for their rapid response and deployment of resources to help the people of Gassville. Entergy and Arkansas Western Gas were on scene in a short period of time, with many more to arrive the next day from all over Arkansas and other states. They have been working diligently ever since to get power restored, and some power has already been restored in some areas.
I also want to compliment the local insurance agents and the companies they work, as well as the adjusters, for their rapid deployment to Gassville. All throughout Wednesday and Thursday, I saw many agents and adjusters traveling throughout the city surveying damage, making reports, and trying to take care of their customers. Some of them also set up relief stations with food, water, and other amenities available to everyone.
One of the biggest problems we began to face, particularly on Wednesday, was the influx of "sightseers" coming into Gassville to see the destruction for themselves, stopping to take photographs or video. I know that many people become very curious and want a first hand look, but most probably didn't realize how badly they were hampering recovery operations. These people had no legitimate reason to be in Gassville and only caused bad traffic congestion and interfered with workers and officials. They should have been a little more considerate of others and stayed out of the area !!
There was one initial report of prowlers (maybe looters) on Sanford Ln. the night of the storm, but that was unconfirmed. Numerous officers responded to that complaint but didn't find anyone there. That was the one and only such report that I know of.
We also realized that there would undoubtedly be people going door to door offering to do repair, clean-up, or contracting work to city residents in need. Most of these people would undoubtedly be legitimate business people, but there would also undoubtedly be at least some who were not so "legitimate" and would try to take advantage of people in a time of crisis. In order to protect the citizens, it was decided that any person intending to solicit door to door would be required to register and apply for a photo identification card at the Gassville City Hall before they would be allowed to solicit. Most people complied with this reasonable requirement, and I saw several people waiting in line throughout the day at the City Hall for one of these ID cards.
So we keep getting asked about what's going to happen from here. I wish we had all the answers, but we don't. I know that the Governor, members of his staff, and members of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management were here touring on Wednesday, and at least two members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had arrived in Gassville as of Thursday afternoon. I am told that there will be a meeting between FEMA and local officials Friday morning at the City Hall. Hopefully we can get some answers then as to what extended services and relief efforts, if any, that FEMA intends to provide. I know that many people had no insurance on their homes or buildings, and will be desparately seeking help from FEMA in getting household set up somewhere else. I hope it will be forthcoming quickly.
I also understand that Mayor Smith has granted a faith-based organization with experience in organizing volunteer clean-up efforts permission to coordinate those activities for the City. I understand this organization will be setting up a temporary office at or behind the Gassville Baptist Church and will be accepting volunteer assistance for tree limb and debris removal starting Monday of next week. I don't think anything can be satisfactorily organized until then. The Mayor wants a structured and organized volunteer effort with specific duties and assignments handed out so the clean-up work can be done safely and effectively, not haphazardly. I would suggest anyone wanting to volunteer for clean-up duty to contact the Gassville City Hall for more details on that. Their number is 435-6439, but you may have to call several times before you can get through.
The Gassville City Council is also scheduled to meet in special emergency session next Monday evening at 7:00 PM to consider ordinances and/or resolutions concerning condemning structures and properties, clean-up regulations, and other related matters. That meeting will be open to the public at the city hall.
I think that once more electric power is restored, and more people can return to their homes that are still habitable, that the clean-up effort can proceed at a quicker pace. But it will be many months before clean-up is finished.
The people of Gassville have come together in fellowship and community to support and provide for one another in this time of crisis and need. It's great to live in such a wonderful community. Again, there is no way to offer sufficient thanks and appreciation to all those who are volunteering their time and services to provide for all these people who are in need and have suffered so much. That's one bright light shining in the darkness.
I hope to follow-up with more information within the next week or so.
Thanks for your continued support !
Capt. Jeff Lewis,
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