Inevitably, somebody gets around to saying that it looks like a bomb went off. But it doesn't look like a bomb. A bomb is fire. A bomb is deliberation — a human hand and mind deciding where to plant it or drop it, when to set the timer or light the fuse. This isn't that. This is the worst kind of random.
On Sunday, April 27, a tornado that formed around 7:30 p.m. near Roland in Pulaski County tracked northeast, devastating a sizeable chunk of the city of Mayflower before taking dead aim on Vilonia, the Faulkner County town that had been hit by an F2 twister on April 25, 2011, almost exactly three years prior. After passing through Vilonia, the funnel may have stayed on the ground all the way to the Missouri state line. The National Weather Service has issued a preliminary rating for the tornado as an EF3, with wind speeds between 136 and 165 miles per hour. At this writing, the number of homes listed as uninhabitable due to damage in Vilonia and Mayflower is around 3,000, with an official death toll of 15. That number of dead will likely climb before the week is out.
The tornado crossed Interstate 40 just south of Mayflower, wiping cars off the road and sucking wooden posts used to string a guide wire in the median out of the ground like rotten teeth. Monday morning around 10 a.m., a red Volvo rig lay on its side on the southbound lanes of the interstate, an even larger wrecker working to right it. A car, almost unrecognizable as a car, sat in a heap of debris.
At Mayflower RV along the I-40 access road, the main building was piled into a broken wad of metal, bricks and lumber 30 feet high, studded with demolished trucks and trailer frames. Everybody survived, somebody told somebody as I walked past, even the office cat.
Just last week, they were in business selling Nature Lite: trailers and motorhomes with satellite TV and electric lights, hot water showers and queen-sized beds, ready to hook onto and head for Yosemite or Yellowstone, a running-water-concrete-pad version of getting out into the wilderness. But nature — true nature, bared teeth and red eyes, the monster in the darkness outside the firelight — rose up and found them here Sunday night at dusk and obliterated that dream. The land to the east of I-40 at Mayflower was mucky bottomland before the freeway, the lot the RV dealership sat on built up with fill dirt and gravel, the back of the property falling away in a drop of 20 feet or more. When the tornado came shrieking over the interstate, tumbling cars and tractor trailer rigs, it scraped almost everything off that higher ground and into the mud beyond like a petulant child swiping a bowl off a high chair with her arm. Behind the lot, the trees were stripped, festooned with wadded sheets of tin. A giant old moving truck lay on its side like a mastodon fallen into the tar pits. There was the rotten-egg smell of propane in the air, and every once in a while, maybe a whiff of something dead. A hundred yards away, a Blackhawk helicopter hovered out over the marsh. The employees of Mayflower RV posed for a picture with the sign that used to be on the roof. Fifteen feet away, a spray-painted gold horseshoe sat among the rubble.
Nearby, Burt Wade stood beside a barricade of smashed trucks, saving what he could from his RV, which lay on its side in the rubble. The roof was stripped away and the battery dangled out of the frame by one cable.