All was quiet April 28 as St. Joseph Church’s parish hall awaited the first wave of local refugees displaced by rough weather in surrounding communities the night before. But not unlike the moments leading up to tornados themselves, Matt Mallett, parish business manager, knew it was just the calm before the storm.
“We got the call last night from the Red Cross and we were up here until about 2 a.m. getting everything set up,” he said. “There’s nobody here right now, but we’ve heard there are going to be a lot of people headed this way as soon as the roads open up.”
Several tornados skipped across central Arkansas Sunday evening, the most catastrophic of which was rated an EF4, National Weather Service officials in North Little Rock announced May 1. It was the first EF4 to hit the state in five years and clocked winds near the top of the rating's 166-200 mph range. It was just the 28th EF4 tornado recorded in Arkansas in more than 60 years.
Miraculously, no one was killed along Interstate 40 north of Little Rock where the storm scattered cars, trucks and semis. But as it cut a swath a half-mile wide and 80 miles long across Faulkner County, the communities of Vilonia and Mayflower were not so fortunate. Overnight reports put the preliminary death toll at 16 statewide, 10 in those central Arkansas communities alone, which are each less than 14 miles from Conway.
St. Joseph Church has been on the Red Cross’ emergency shelter list since at least 2011 and sporadically before that. Red Cross officials inspect standby facilities annually to ensure they continue to be listed as a possible relief center in the event of an emergency. This is the first time that St. Joseph has been used as a Red Cross shelter. Mallett said St. Joseph’s facilities could hold somewhere around 200 people and would also use other amenities at St. Joseph School such as showers in the locker rooms.
Surprisingly, though, only a few people took advantage of the relief center at St. Joseph overnight April 28 and the Red Cross closed it the following day. However, the parish contionues to post helpful information on its Facebook page,including updated requests for donations and manpower for cleanup.
The tornados did not affect Conway itself; however, Mallett said efforts were ongoing to contact parish members who lived on the outskirts of the community who may have been affected by the storm. As of Monday, Mallett “could not say with confidence” whether any St. Joseph parishioners had been hurt or displaced, but by April 29, word of property damage began trickling in. The parish's worst fears were also confirmed with the news Tuesday that parishioners Dennis and Glenna Lavergne had been killed in the storm.
Catholic Charities of Arkansas supported St. Joseph's relief site efforts through financial assistance and whatever other help the parish needed. Even before that site closed, additional attention was brought to bear on other affected areas in the relief effort. Patrick Gallaher, CCA executive director, said his office actively contacted parishes throughout the state to determine if there was any damage to structures or if there were any affected congregants.
"We started at the Missouri state line and started calling parishes individually, as well as contacting those more directly in danger of the storm,” he said. “So far we understand there were four parishioners of Christ the King (in Little Rock) whose houses were damaged (in west Pulaski County).”
By April 29, the focus changed from search and rescue to damage assessment. CCA’s focus shifted to logistics and preparing loing term resources.
Working in conjunction with a consortium of churches and relief agencies, CCA was actively seeking storage facilities for the food, water and tarps that had already poured in and the myriad of other donated materials that are sure to follow in the days ahead.
“The original staging area was the Beryl Baptist Church in Vilonia and it was quickly overwhelmed by the donations,” Gallaher said. “We’re working to establish storage areas removed from the immediate scene so that as the materials can be brought in as needed.”
CCA has also applied for two grants through Catholic Charities USA, one for the Arkansas office and one for St. Joseph Church. The national group was also coordinating with FEMA requesting federally-certified case workers be assigned to the communities to assist families seeking assistance. CCA has very few case workers, who are individuals in establishing victims’ identification, verifying their financial needs and following up to ensure money is used for legitimate rebuilding and to head off scams. Gallaher said such safeguards are important to get limited funds into the hands of people who need it most.
“Many people who own homes or even rent have insurance and insurance will cover their losses,” Gallaher said. “One of our biggest needs going forward are the people who do not have insurance. We can’t act as their insurance agency and cover all of their losses, but these people represent a priority group for us.”
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