High winds mar buildings in at least 2 Arkansas counties; cars flooded in state's southeast

Heavy equipment is used to clear debris in front of Jessieville High School on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2022 after a suspected tornado caused damage in the area. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Heavy equipment is used to clear debris in front of Jessieville High School on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2022 after a suspected tornado caused damage in the area. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Several waves of severe thunderstorms raked Arkansas on Monday, bringing high winds that damaged buildings in at least two communities — Jessieville in Garland County and Norphlet in Union County. Two injuries were reported.

More storms were on the way and expected to pass through Central Arkansas about midnight, said John Lewis, senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in North Little Rock.

Flooding was also a problem in some areas on Monday.

"Through 8 p.m. CST...the heaviest rain extended from central into northeast Arkansas. This is where 2 to over 4 inches of rain fell," the weather service said in a message on Twitter. "Roads were under water at Hoxie and Walnut Ridge (Lawrence Co). Vehicles were stalled in the water, and an apartment complex was flooded."

Lewis said it could have been a tornado that hit Jessieville, and similar damage was reported at Norphlet. Whether they were tornadoes, and how severe, will be determined later.

The National Weather Service office in North Little Rock said Tuesday morning that it was surveying the damage to determine if it was caused by a tornado or straight-line winds. 

High winds damaged about 20 structures in the Jessieville area Monday afternoon, Garland County Department of Emergency Management Director Bo Robertson said Tuesday.

He said most of the damage occurred at the Jessieville School District property, but areas south and north of the school were also affected. Three structures on Murders Loop and five on Blakely Camp Road were damaged, Robertson said. He said, north of the school, structures on LL Wilson Trail and Rector Ward Road were damaged.

Bruce Goff, the emergency management coordinator in Union County, said a suspected tornado damaged a dozen homes on Shady Grove Road, about 4 miles west of Norphlet, at about noon on Monday.

"An off-duty police officer saw the funnel cloud behind his residence," said Goff.

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"It probably stayed down between a quarter and a half a mile before it lifted back up."

Goff said most of the damage involved roofs and vinyl siding. He said the tornado destroyed one metal workshop and pitched an unoccupied wood-frame house askew on its brick foundation.

Goff said there were no injuries reported in Union County.

The Garland County sheriff's office reported that four homes were damaged in the Jessieville area — one severely — when the storm moved through Monday afternoon. Jessieville is about 18 miles north of Hot Springs.

Students in Jessieville were back in school on Monday for the first day after winter break. Garland County Sheriff Mike McCormick said the school "took the brunt" of the damage.

Superintendent Melissa Speers said all the students were safe although two staff members had minor injuries.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for the Jessieville area at 2:44 p.m. Monday.

"At 2:35, there was nothing going on, maybe some light rain," Robertson, the emergency management director, said. "At 2:38, all hell was breaking loose. Then, at 2:44, it was a radar-indicated tornado. By then it was all done. It was moving away from the school. It was moving extremely fast."

Speers said she had begun monitoring the situation around noon.

"Around lunchtime, I turned the TV in my office on so I could start monitoring the weather, watching the news, see if there was anything," she said. "I was keeping an eye on it. About 2:45 p.m. some of the ladies in my office — between 2:30, 2:45 p.m. — 'Our flagpole is really (moving),' and so we were looking at that ... and just out of the blue, high winds, awnings began to blow away, the flagpole blows over and students and staff began moving to the safe room. We didn't have any prior warning."

Speers said she wanted to give her staff credit.

"My staff stepped up," she said. "They did what we've been trained to do. They did what they know to do, and they protected our students. We had no students hurt. We were able to get our students to the safe room. All of our students have made it home safely tonight."

Speers said the school will not be open today due to a damage assessment.

McCormick, the sheriff, said the safe room at Jessieville school "worked out really well" and probably saved a lot of lives, keeping the students and others safe.

He said National Park Service, Hot Springs Village personnel and others all helped, noting, "Basically every agency in that area were involved. We had really good cooperation from everyone."

McCormick said damage from the storm seemed to be concentrated and was pretty much contained to the 8000 block of Arkansas 7 north.

Entergy Arkansas, the Arkansas State Police, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and fire departments from Jessieville, Fountain Lake and Buckville were also all helping at the scene, said Deputy Courtney Kizer, spokeswoman for the Garland County sheriff's office.

About 5 p.m., Kizer reported that Arkansas 7 had been reopened after being closed due to power lines down in the area around the school.

McCormick said the deputies were going house to house throughout the area and there were still no injuries, other than the two staff members at the school.""

Kizer said they got the initial call at 2:44 p.m. of damage in the Jessieville area and they knew school was in session so that was the first concern.

"It was normal. Just pouring down rain," said Luke Franklin, whose home was damaged on Monday.

Franklin said he received a text about the tornado, but "I had my phone on silent."

Then, "it was like everything stopped. That's when I knew something was wrong."

"I'm just thankful it wasn't any worse than this," said Barbara Meiners, Franklin's mother.

Entergy Arkansas reported 5,456 customers without electricity as of 8:40 p.m. Monday. That number included 664 customers in the Hot Springs area.

Southeast Arkansas avoided tornadoes overnight Monday, but the heavy storms in this corner of the state produced flooding that has led to a number of road closures.

The heaviest impact of the storms resulted in Arkansas and Lincoln counties. Of the 22 road closures reported on IDriveArkansas.com as of 9 a.m. Tuesday, six of them were located in or near DeWitt in central Arkansas County, and five were reported in Lincoln County.

Residents in Stuttgart woke up to underwater cars as the flooding made the roads impossible to see. There was no immediate confirmation on how high the flood in the city reached. 

U.S. 165, connecting Stuttgart in the northern half of Arkansas County to DeWitt, was closed at one point and then rebounded. That left state highways 1B in DeWitt, 1, 11, 130, 165 and 276 still closed.

Arkansas 54, 83, 114 and 199, and U.S. 425 were still closed as of 9:40 a.m. Tuesday.

Lincoln County Judge Buddy Earnest said Tuesday morning he and other county officials had been out and about the county since 2 a.m. examining the storm damage in his area. Earnest reported pipes such as culverts going under roads had been washed out, and added that pipes on Autumn Hills Road between Alexander Road and Arkansas 530 would need to be replaced.

A citizen called Earnest and reported to him that a wooden bridge was washed out.

“The water is receding pretty good,” Earnest said. “Some low-water creeks have water going up to the road. We’re asking drivers don’t cross any waters.”

Jefferson County reported no damage from the Monday night storms, although Arkansas 199 going south from Moscow and into U.S. 425 was still flooded.

The National Weather Service in North Little Rock office confirmed a tree was blown down and struck a home 1 mile south of Star City on Monday night while “pretty extensive flooding” impacted the southeast portion of the state. Meteorologist Dylan Cooper said the storm is moving east of the Mississippi River and the weather in southeast Arkansas will clear up by Tuesday afternoon.

Information for this article was contributed by the staff of the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  photo  Damage to the Jessieville School District Administration Building and a vehicle as the result of severe weather are shown Monday afternoon. - Photo by James Leigh of The Sentinel-Record
 
 
  photo  A vehicle pictured Tuesday goes underwater as a result of overnight flooding in Stuttgart. (Special to The Commercial/Paul Colvin)