DAMASCUS, Ark. – Smoke rose from burning heaps of wreckage Saturday as residents of rural Arkansas cleaned up what was left of their homes after deadly tornadoes scoured a state that has been plagued by severe weather this year.
All that remained of Shelia Massey’s home were a chimney, a bathroom wall, and a bathtub that was her storm shelter.
“God’s hand came down and held us there while the rest of the house just blew away,” said Massey, 54. “That’s all there was to it. The Lord held us there.”
A child poking through the rubble found a photograph of Massey’s husband, who was not at home when the violent weather struck Friday. The storms killed seven people, damaged or destroyed about 400 homes, and knocked out electrical and telephone service for thousands of customers in 18 counties.
Altogether, meteorologists said more than 25 tornadoes may have touched down across middle America Thursday and Friday, but Arkansas was the hardest hit.
Down U.S. 65 from Massey’s house, parishioners at Southside Baptist Church salvaged what was left of their old sanctuary and their new church, still under construction.
Men backed pickups to the front door of the old church and loaded up boxes filled with red-leather hymnals. The storm had collapsed the roof of the new sanctuary, bending its steel beams.
In the countryside outside Damascus, John Rusin, 62, said he and his wife, Marsha, 60, took shelter in a small room along with two dogs after forecasters broke in on a television show they were watching.
Winds almost ripped a mattress out of his arms as he held it over his wife, he said.
“The pressure on it felt like my ears were going to pop off my head,” he said.
Only after the storm passed did he realize it had picked up their house and moved it 65 feet off its foundation.
Public officials offered comfort and support. U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., and a staff member shook hands with volunteers cleaning the church, and Gov. Mike Beebe toured damaged areas.
He has declared 11 counties disaster areas.
National Weather Service teams were sent out to survey damage for their count of the tornadoes, and state emergency management workers helped county officials with damage assessments. Arkansas National Guard members were on hand to provide security.
Elsewhere Saturday, the National Weather Service posted tornado watches during the morning for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as an arc of strong thunderstorms rolled across the region.