State marks 20 years since 56 twisters hit in a 24-hour span
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas was battered by the largest tornado outbreak in the state’s history 20 years ago.
Fifty-six tornadoes were spawned in Arkansas during a 24-hour period from Jan. 21-22, 1999, said Joe Goudsward, a National Weather Service meteorologist in North Little Rock. The tornadoes killed eight people and injured about 150.
It was a frightening night in the state. Sirens wailed and hail fell, at times the size of baseballs and grapefruit.
“Numerous storms impacted Pulaski County so there was a long period of time with sirens going off,” Jeff Hood, a meteorologist with the weather service, told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Hood was 10 years old at the time, playing in a basketball game that night at Holy Souls Catholic School in Little Rock.
“Being a little kid, it was a scary experience,” Hood said.
Robin and Harry Loucks were sitting down for supper at their home in Little Rock when they said simultaneously, “Does that sound like a train?”
“I jumped up and opened the door and saw all this debris flying past,” said Robin Loucks.
They headed for the basement.
“It was over in minutes,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see the devastation. We lost so many historic structures.”
Civil-rights activist Daisy Bates wasn’t home that night, but the tornado took out the picture window in the front of her house and destroyed many of her belongings. It was the same window that was shattered by rocks, bricks and bullets during the 1957 battle over the integration of Central High School. Bates died later that year.
Ned Perme said it was the most memorable event of his 40-year career as a television meteorologist.
“I was on the air by myself for many, many hours,” Perme said during an interview last year. “It was a very long day. You don’t even think about the end. You just have to keep going. You have to get in the moment and get through it one minute and one hour at a time.”
According to the National Weather Service, the tornado that hit Little Rock’s historic section was tracked from Shannon Hills in Saline County.
“Several homes built at the turn of the 20th century were heavily damaged,” according to the weather service.
“Even the governor’s mansion was not spared, with a tree falling on a fence around the property. A grocery store was ripped apart as well. Three people were killed in the area.”
Patricia Blick, executive director of the Quapaw Quarter Association in Little Rock, said the city recommended demolishing 71 residential and four commercial structures that were damaged by the storm.
“Even before the tornado, downtown Little Rock was struggling,” she said. “It was challenged. The tornado hit. It was catastrophic.”
But downtown is making a comeback, she said.
“People are investing in the neighborhood,” Blick said. “Even though the tornado was catastrophic, it has not deterred interest in revitalization of our commercial and residential structures.”
Buildings were destroyed in other Arkansas cities. In Beebe, a couple hundred people were attending a girls high school basketball game, according to the weather service. School officials stopped the game at halftime and the crowd left. A half-hour later, a tornado destroyed the gymnasium.
The January 1999 tornadoes tended to spin up along Interstate 30 and U.S. Highway 67/167 corridors, traveling from southwest to northeast — from Texarkana through Clay County in the state’s northeast corner.
The Little Rock office of the National Weather Service issued 48 tornado warnings, 80 severe thunderstorm warnings and 22 flash flood warnings during the January 1999 event.
At least eight of the tornadoes were rated F3, with wind speeds up to 206 miles per hour, Goudsward said. The strongest tornado was reported in Clay County. It was an F4, with wind speeds up to 260 mph.
Most of the tornadoes were produced between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Jan. 21.
Goudsward said tornadoes are counted when they touch the ground. If they lift back up, travel two miles, and touch the earth again, that’s counted as a second tornado.
If one tornado stays on the ground for 50 miles, it’s counted as one tornado, Goudsward said.
The previous Arkansas record for one outbreak was 34 tornadoes on June 5, 1916, according to the weather service.
Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com