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Twenty-five years after the historic tornado outbreak in Arkansas in 1999



Little Rock, Arkansas – On January 21, 1999, a full 25 years ago, over a dozen strong tornadoes devastated sections of Central and Northeast Arkansas in a single day.

“I don’t have a place to live right now,” said a Little Rock resident. “Devastating.”

Many people in Arkansas will never forget that day.

“Heavy rainfall, hail, and any of these thunderstorms do have the potential of producing tornadoes tonight because the atmosphere is just exactly right for it,” said Barry Brandt.

Lines of fronts brought several powerful storms across the state.

“This is different today,” said Ned Perme. “What you are looking at is individual super cells that hold out on their own and because they are isolated and separated from their line they are able to take in much much more energy. That allows them to grow the way that they are.”

It was the greatest tornado outbreak in Arkansas history, with 56 tornadoes making landfall between January 21 and 22, 1999.

In Clay County, eight of those tornadoes received ratings of F3 and F4.

Over 100 people were injured and eight people died as a result of 30 tornado tracks that spanned 15 counties.

One storm after another erupted, wreaking havoc from hot springs to Jonesboro.

“Take cover right now,” said Brandt. “This is a very dangerous storm. In saline county we are looking at the back of this storm and it is very, very dark.”

When so many people were stuck in the wreckage, crews and good samaritans rushed to save them.

Customers and staff in Little Rock were stranded inside the torn-down Harvest Food store.

“I felt the cold wind and all the lights were blinking off and my mind told me to get out,” said a Harvest Foods Customer.

Several people had to be pulled from the debris by first responders.

“We couldn’t get the door open but by the time we got it open, everybody just rushed in and that is when the tornado hit and the ceiling just blew off.” said a Harvest Foods employee.

Many people were stuck in leveled homes.

“At least 45 minutes but it felt like we were under there forever,” said Laura Nichels, Little Rock resident. “The house totally shifted over and fell down on top of us.”

Losing the place they call home.

“I don’t see how we lived through it so the man upstairs had to have been looking out for us,” said Beebe resident.

Taking a moment to look around.

“Stunned by the devastation of the tornado and equally stunned by the miraculous survival of human life and say god was really looking out for people tonight,” said Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas Governor. “There is no other way to depict it. When you look at some of the destruction, you think a few inches here, a few feet there, and we would have a lot more fatalities than we are reporting.”

Another decimated hamlet, Beebe, lost two of its citizens.

Beebe Fire Chief Doug Kennedy at the time claimed he could still clearly recall that day.

“It was total devastation,” said Kennedy. “I have worked through a lot of tornados but I was ground zero on this one. It just looks like a massive bomb has exploded. There is not hardly a residence standing. Old trees that have been tossed, twisted metal and debris. It is just unbelievable.”

Kennedy claimed he was forced to seek refuge inside the destroyed fire station.

“Then it became deathly quiet,” said Kennedy. “There weren’t screams, there weren’t hollers. You could just hear the gas roaring. So we thought, better start checking the town. Once the sun starts coming up, you can see the devastation and you are just wondering how. How did we escape? ”

Jim Wooten stated that the Beebe Badgers were scheduled to play Morrilton on that particular day, but the school decided to postpone.

If the gym had been flattened, more than a hundred children, parents, and staff would have been stuck in the route.

“Picture of the basketball court from the airplane, that was all that was left,” said Wooten. “He averted a real disaster because we could have had a real problem. We lost our schools, we lost our churches, all of the focal points that they identify with so it made it extremely difficult for them.”

Communities came together almost immediately.

Twenty-five years later, the original firehouse has been replaced with a health department and a modern fire station.

“It was amazing we didn’t dwell on what had happened, we focused on getting Beebe back to what it had been before and even better,” said Wooten. “Morale was outstanding from our citizens and everyone from the police department to the fire department, the mayor’s office, everyone pulled together. It was a difficult time.”

There are little remnants of that terrible day left in the town, which is thriving today.

“A lot of fantastic people,” said Kennedy. “That was it. God and a lot of fantastic people made the difference.”

The areas that were damaged on the school site have been rebuilt, and Beebe currently has three fire stations.


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