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.
"On the national news last night, they were calling it a 'tow truck'," he said. "But that's a 30-foot, brand-new, 2014 Thor Freedom Elite motor home."
He's owned it since July 2013. He brought it in Friday afternoon for some work to get ready for summer. They'd given him the choice to bring it in on Friday or Monday, and he chose Friday. "I was getting ready to go on a good, long trip in it," he said with a laugh. "But I'm not going now." Wade said the only thing he really hoped to find was a cap given to him by his great-grandkids and grandkids. "My grandkids call me Papa," he said, "and the cap says 'World's Greatest Papa' on it. It's in there. That, I would like to have back. My grandkids always say: 'Oh, Papa! You've got on your hat! You've got on your hat!' But it's gone now. Out of all of it, that cap is the only thing I can think of that I really hate to lose."
Out in the gravel lot, among the insulation and broken roof joists, the contents of someone's home lay scattered and sodden, carried here from who knows where: shampoo bottles, a smashed toilet, a pink glass perfume bottle, a Captain America T-shirt, highlighted textbooks swollen with rain, a book called "Married for Life."
Meanwhile, 50 feet away, a woman in track shoes and gloves was working near a capsized boat. Someone had tied an American flag on a pole to the upturned boat motor, and it flapped in a steady breeze. Slowly, deliberately, the woman picked up one piece of shattered lumber at a time, then carried it to a growing pile. Soon, others joined her. The boat was righted. When enough people had gathered, including two soldiers in fatigues, they lifted a vast, splintered section of camper wall and carried it to the pile, then went back for more.
Just up the access road at Lifeline Fellowship Church, Bailey Butler was helping salvage audio equipment from the concrete block sanctuary, which had been all but leveled. I didn't catch his age. One doesn't ask for age in the apocalypse, but he was young, maybe 19. He had attended that church since he was 6 years old, he said, and was thankful that there had apparently been no deaths among the parishioners as far as anybody knew.
"Maybe it's just God's way of saying we need to be someplace else, you know?" Butler said. "He works in mysterious ways."
Farther north and east, the town of Vilonia was sealed Monday afternoon, police cars with their lights turning at every road heading in, not even the press being allowed in after a press conference that morning. Every road had become the neck of a black jug, concealing misery.
The only place you could get a hint of what lay beyond the checkpoints is at the place the tornado crossed U.S. Highway 64 south of town before continuing over the hill, where it reportedly ground a good bit of the city — including a new, soon-to-open middle school and some of the same neighborhoods decimated in the 2011 tornado — into bent nails and plaster dust. The track is easily a half-mile wide at the highway, and, looking back at Mayflower, continues southwest almost to the horizon. Blasted homes leaned in the distance, the trees around them denuded by the wind. One could hear the growl of multiple chainsaws. Along the edge of the highway, a fence had been ripped out of the ground and spun into a clenched muscle of steel wire. In the cow pasture beyond, a pickup truck was almost embedded in the ground, as if dropped from a passing plane. Across the freeway, what had been a house was leveled to the foundations except for a single wall containing two windows.
On the side of the highway below the demolished house, northern Pulaski County resident Ken Hunt was loading flattened cardboard boxes onto a four-wheeler, as many as he could carry. They were for a family just over the hill whose house had been destroyed. They were trying to pick through and save what they could, he said. They needed boxes, so he brought them boxes.
"We know a lot of folks from our church who live around up here," he said, "so we come to help out. When your family needs help, you come help 'em."