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Part-time firefighter and St. Peter Church parishioner Jacob Hess shows Arkansas Catholic the path an EF3 tornado blazed through Wynne March 31, 2023 during a tour April 11, 2024. (Katie Zakrzewski) A house belonging to the mother of Jacob Hess, a parishioner of St. Peter Church in Wynne, is covered by a blue tarp, awaiting repairs after the March 31, 2023 deadly EF3 tornado that killed four Wynne residents. Photo taken April 11, 2024. (Katie Zakrzewski) Remnants of houses, fencing and trees cover a neighborhood in Wynne a year after being hit by an EF3 tornado. Residents are grappling with insurance and housing shortages as they recover. Photo taken April 11, 2024. (Katie Zakrzewski) The First United Methodist Church of Wynne was badly damaged during the March 31, 2023, tornado. St. Peter Church is renting its facilities to Wynne’s Methodist congregation for worship and a daycare. Photo taken April 11, 2024. (Katie Zakrzewski) Just blocks away from where the tornado hit, a sign welcomes visitors to Wynne. Photo taken April 11, 2024.(Katie Zakrzewski)

One year later: Wynne still recovering from tornado

Housing shortage, insurance delays still affecting East Arkansas town one year later

Published: April 17, 2024      
A rain soaked memorial marks the place where a house once stood in Wynne. On March 31, 2023, firefighter and St. Peter Church parishioner Jacob Hess pulled two bodies from the home after a tree collapsed on top of it during an EF3 tornado. Photo taken April 11, 2024. (Katie Zakrzewski)

WYNNE — As Jacob Hess navigated the empty streets in his large truck, he pointed to concrete foundations and rain-soaked memorials where houses once stood. 

The now-abandoned streets are lined with warped trees. Tattered blue tarps wave like flags of surrender on what remains of the few, damaged houses in the neighborhood. As Hess made his way through what little remains, he pointed out the places where he recovered four of the bodies of people killed during the March 31, 2023, tornado. 

Hess, a parishioner of St. Peter Church in Wynne, is a part-time firefighter and a full-time insurance agent. After three years with the fire department, he has learned to listen to intuition. On March 31, Hess was uneasy. 

“That morning, as soon as I woke up, and for everyone else too, we all had that bad feeling,” Hess said. “It did not go away. It just got worse and worse progressively as the day went by.”

When Hess saw footage of tornadoes touching down in Pulaski County, the fire station activated their storm spotter protocol, spreading out across the city with equipment and eyes on the skies. 

At 4 p.m., the tornado warning was activated in neighboring Woodruff County.

“We saw the whole thing. We saw the lowering of the cloud, the base, the funnel and the tornado,” Hess said. “It became rain-wrapped, so you could only see it for about 30 seconds, and then you couldn’t see anything. … We started our search and rescue efforts.”

As Hess showed Arkansas Catholic the areas most affected, he stopped in front of a house with a blue and white tarp on it. 

“This is my mother’s home, here on the corner,” Hess said. “It’s waiting to be repaired. It’s been sitting there like that ever since.”

Hess’ sister was in high school at the time. The Wynne High School was hit particularly hard. Pieces of football turf were found 40 miles away in Memphis. What remains of the First United Methodist Church of Wynne beside the high school is surrounded by fencing to deter tresspassers.

As Hess retraced the path of the tornado, he pointed out the FEMA trailers that sat quietly in the rain. 

“This area of town was for a lot of low-income families that were renting and did not have any kind of insurance, so that’s why you see a lot of the empty foundations,” Hess said. “A lot of people had no choice except to go somewhere else.”


Navigating hurdles

Terah Redman, disaster case manager with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA for Cross County, has an office at the Wynne Tornado Distribution Center. 

“The DCMs have been working on opening cases and walking with the survivors, and knowing what their disaster-related unmet need it,” said Cathy Garcia, regional program manager for the Disaster Services Corporation in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA. “Terah takes care of Cross County, and she has 62 cases open. The normal caseload for a DCM is 35. … It is also based on tier levels — what the DCM feels it’s going to take for the survivors to reach recovery.”

When asked what the biggest challenge facing Wynne on the path to recovery is, Redman answered, “Funding and housing.” 

“We have a lot of clients that are still homeless, that are living in FEMA trailers,” she said. “They didn’t have insurance, they don’t have the funds, they were lower-income to begin with and now trying to find them housing is the hardest part, because there’s no housing available in Wynne. They’re at capacity.”

“FEMA allows (Wynne residents living in FEMA trailers) a certain period of time (before moving out). That time is ticking,” Garcia added. “Some of them may have less than five months to stay in that trailer, either to purchase it or to move out of it. Some may have another month, some may have another five months, but time is ticking on those.”

Redman said FEMA is allowing some residents to buy trailers for $6,600. 

“It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it is to people who don’t have any money. But our quote so far, just for everything from plumbing and electrical and moving, is around $8,800 additional on top of that $6,600. That’s just the numbers we’ve gotten in the last week. … We’re having to look at other means. It feels like you’re battling uphill whenever you’re coming to funding and housing. … You can’t add more clients because your caseload is full, but you can’t work with these clients because there’s nothing for them to do.”


Picking up pieces

The struggle with insurance and housing is something that St. Peter Church parishioner Therese Yarnold knows all too well. 

Yarnold's house, located behind Wynne High School, was a total loss. Since then, every house on her street has been demolished. 

“I knew it would take a while to recover, but I didn’t think it’d take a year,” Yarnold said. “I’m blessed that I was not at home because if I was, I’d have probably been killed.”

As Yarnold came home from work, she had to park in front of roadblocks and walk to her house. When she did, she found that an oak tree had fallen through her house, and bleachers from the high school were lodged in her doors and windows. 

Yarnold says she was underinsured, a common problem after natural disasters. While her insurance quickly sent her a check for her dwelling, the contents inside proved to be more troublesome. 

“It took me six months to write down everything because they wanted to know what it was, how many you had, where you bought it, when you bought it, how much it cost,” Yarnold said. 

Yarnold said she submitted a list of her household contents in November and was told by her insurance company that it would take 45 days to verify and calculate the value. 

When Yarnold didn’t hear anything after 60 days, her insurance company explained they had verified everything, but they were going out of business, and the state would take over procedures. Further issues arose with tracking down compensation sent in the mail, as the post office often struggled to sort mail correctly for individuals in impacted areas. 

Because Yarnold had home insurance, she didn’t qualify for any assistance from FEMA, except for $700 given to all people impacted by the tornado. 

FEMA did, however, put Yarnold in contact with the Small Business Administration, which provides low-interest disaster loans to homeowners and business owners to recover from natural disasters. 

After a year, Yarnold finally closed on her new house April 11. She said from talking with other residents who lost their homes the normal recovery time is 18 months. Shortly after the tornado hit, construction materials took longer to acquire and were more expensive. Yarnold had originally planned to build a house, but that quickly became impossible. 

A year later, Yarnold is just happy to finally have a home. 

“You’re so overwhelmed when it happens. Everybody is trying to help you, and you don’t know what you need yet. I still don’t know everything that was salvaged,” Yarnold said. “After the last year, I’m finally at where I can take a deep breath.”

Another parishioner Beth Boeckmann also remembers March 31, 2023 vividly. A retired school administrator, Boeckmann is used to tornado watches and warnings.

“I was under the impression — like most people in Wynne — that it never hits the center of town,” Boeckmann said. “We’ve had warnings in the north or the southern part of the city, but nothing strictly hitting the town.”

Like Hess, Boeckmann remembered the day felt different. 

“There was a different atmosphere in the air,” Boeckmann said. 

Boeckmann watched footage of the tornado hitting Little Rock with her husband and saw the trajectory of the storm. Boeckmann’s daughter, a pharmacist, had recently renovated a building next to the First United Methodist Church for her business, Wynne Apothecary. Boeckmann invited her friends and neighbors to gather in the pharmacy’s large vault.

Soon, 21 people were inside, bracing for the storm. 

“The tornado hit a block from the pharmacy,” Boeckmann said, wiping her eyes. “We had the whole family there. Our son-in-law came in and said, ‘I’ve seen it, it’s going to hit us.’ … You’re in disbelief that it’s really going to happen. Afterward, we stepped outside of the pharmacy and looked a block away, and one of the first things one of the girls said was, ‘The Methodist Church steeple is gone.’ Then we started getting calls about the school and my neighbors’ houses. That’s when it became real.”


Let us love one another

While insurance and housing shortages made recovery difficult, parishioners said community made the biggest difference in the recovery. In the hours and days after the storm, Arkansans were rushing to Wynne to help. 

Within minutes of the tornado passing through, a firefighter from Clinton approached Hess and wanted to know how he could help. Hundreds of firefighters from as far away as Jonesboro and West Memphis were close behind.

“If you were one of the firemen that came to help us, you have no idea how much we truly appreciate it,” Hess said. “We had over 240 firemen in our station that night. … We stopped counting at 240.”

Other faiths began reaching out to help and fill in the gaps that federal agencies and services couldn’t close. 

“The next morning … the Church of Christ members swarmed our yard,” Boeckmann said. “Community people we do business with, asking ‘What can I do to help?’ And it wasn’t just mine. It was happening all over the city, and it was just a blessing that God bestowed. You see his work.”

Jill Hamrick, administrative assistant at St. Peter in Wynne, said she witnessed the volunteers who flocked to town.

“Where we live, we can see Falls Boulevard somewhat,” Hamrick said of the main road in Wynne. “And to see all of these people coming in with excavators and backhoes, it just took our breath away, and it was sudden. People came just suddenly.”

“We had a fish fry here (at the parish),” Hamrick said. “We pulled people together and put the word out that if you need food, or even if you’re out helping, we’ll feed you, we’ll bring it to you. … The next weekend we did a breakfast and another fish fry. A lot of people called wanting to know what they could send.”

St. Peter helped with the coordination and distribution of goods. 

Henry Boeckmann, a relative of Beth Boeckmann and office assistant at St. Peter, said the tornado provided the opportunity for Catholics in Wynne to “break bread together” with others they might not have before. 

“We had a couple of meals immediately after the tornado for first responders and anyone in the neighborhood who was in need, and it was a very simple thing,” he said. “We couldn’t build new houses or build businesses back for people, but at least we could share food and a little bit of fellowship. 

“The tornado was overwhelming for everybody, even those who didn’t suffer a direct hit or direct personal losses, but just being in the midst of all that. But it was good that we could share with people and come together as a community. … That’s reassuring, in that it’s a small start in healing after such disaster.”

Pastor Father John Wakube, who moved to Wynne July 1, 2023, said St. Peter has offered their church buildings for the First United Methodist Church to use while they navigate constructing their church and daycare. 

“The Methodist church was destroyed, and they are using our parish hall for their daycare, and they’re using our building for the Knights of Columbus for their church. They pray there,” Father Wakube said. 

Even though the contract for the First United Methodist Church to use St. Peter’s facilities was for a year, recovery and construction challenges have delayed progress.

“We just renewed (the contract) for a year, because they haven’t really raised enough money to renovate and repair their church,” Father Wakube said. “But it’s underway.”

Father Wakube said parishioners at St. Peter have been eager to support the community. 

“It’s a community that really feels for others, and I got that from even the Methodists. They said, ‘Father, we were worried. We thought that you were not going to renew the contract.’ And I said, ‘Why? We are brothers and sisters in Christ. It happened to you, and it can happen to us also. So who knows, maybe we can run to your place as well,’” Father Wakube said with a laugh. “We are all in this together.”

As Wynne continues to recover from the tornado, several members of the community have had a chance to see the goodness of others in a difficult time, and in turn, grow in their faith. 

Yarnold said she always considered herself a non-practicing Catholic growing up, but the help of the community bolstered her faith following the tornado. 

“In 2019, we started going back to church, and we haven’t missed a Sunday since,” Yarnold said. “(The tornado) made my faith stronger. Every time I’ve really needed something, God has provided for me, even before all this happened. He’s always put me on a path where I can achieve it myself. I’ve had a lot of roadblocks with this. I’d come and pray, and I had the answer the next day, and it was always in my favor.”

Hess said his faith has grown, too, whether he’s fighting fires or processing an insurance claim.

“While I wouldn’t say that I have been angry at God, I have certainly had moments of questioning why such a devastating event had to occur. In times of crisis, it’s only natural to seek meaning and understanding,” he said, explaining that Joshua 1:9 has provided great comfort to him in the last year. 

“From a firefighter’s perspective, my faith has guided me to remain steadfast in my duty to serve and protect others, even in the most challenging and dangerous situations,” Hess said. “It has given me the courage to face the chaos, knowing that I am not alone. From an insurance agent’s perspective, it has helped me approach each situation and treat people with kindness and empathy as they navigate the difficult process of rebuilding their lives.”

Beth Boeckmann said despite the negativity you might see in the news and in politics, Wynne’s ongoing recovery process reminded her there is still good in the world. 

“With all of the negativity we have in our country, and all of the division, we saw the goodness of mankind,” she said. “People came. Neighbors, community members across the state, out of state, into the Wynne community, and started helping us salvage and move out what needed to be moved out. … I can’t say enough good things about them.” 

How can I help?

  • To help with recovery efforts in Wynne, email or call the St. Vincent de Paul disaster services hotline at (800) 668-0683.
  • To support Catholic Charities’ tornado recovery, send a check to Disaster Relief Fund, Diocese of Little Rock, 2500 North Tyler Street, Little Rock, AR 72207 or visit


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