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Remembering March 1, 1997

Updated: Mar 4

It's March 1. It's a day when I always think back to March 1, 1997, the sad Saturday when much of my hometown of Arkadelphia was destroyed by an EF4 tornado

The storms cut a swath from Arkadelphia in the southwest to Marmaduke in the northeast, killing more people in a single day than tornadoes had killed in all of Bill Clinton's 12 years as governor.

I was the policy and communications director for Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had been in office for less than eight months. We were in the middle of our first regular legislative session, and I was worn out. I slept late that Saturday and was reading downstairs in our Little Rock condo when my wife called out from an upstairs bedroom.

"Channel 11 just reported that Arkadelphia has been destroyed by a tornado," Melissa said.

The former print journalist in me came out as I quickly replied: "Television always exaggerates."

Still, I decided to call my parents' home in Arkadelphia to check on them. When I got the "all circuits are busy" recording, I began to worry.

About that time, tornado sirens in Pulaski County went off. Our son Evan, now 27, had been born just a few weeks before.

"You and Evan come downstairs until the storm gets by," I called out.

Our home phone rang as they came down the stairs. My father, who was 72 at the time, had dodged fallen trees in his car and then walked the final few blocks to check on his business, which was housed in a sturdy former post office built in 1917.

Somehow, he had been able to get a cell signal.

"The store seems OK, but everything appears to be gone on Main Street a block away," he yelled into the phone. "Call the governor and tell him to send the National Guard. We need help."

At that point, the signal dropped. I immediately called the governor's mansion. The state trooper who answered the phone informed me that the governor was on the other line. I told the trooper I would hold.

When Huckabee picked up the phone, he said: "I know why you're calling. I was just on the other line with Percy Malone, who was standing in the rubble of what used to be his drugstore in Arkadelphia. Get over to the mansion and we'll start planning our response."

I jumped in the car. I wouldn't return home until 30 hours later. Once we figured out the magnitude of the storm, the governor suggested that we move our base of operations to the governor's office.

We set up a command center at the state Capitol and worked all night. Among the things we planned was a trip soon after daylight Sunday in National Guard helicopters to Arkadelphia. I was in the first Blackhawk, which was piloted by Jimmy Smedley, someone I had grown up with in Arkadelphia. We had a press pool in the second helicopter. The Arkadelphia tornado was the biggest news story in the country that morning.

We viewed the destruction in Pulaski and Saline counties from the air. Once we reached Arkadelphia, Huckabee asked the pilot to slowly circle the town where he had attended college at Ouachita Baptist University; the town where he and his wife Janet had first lived as a married couple.

Almost 60 city blocks had been all or partially destroyed. The magnitude of the devastation was evident from the air. I could feel the tears coming as I tried to recognize landmarks in the place I had lived from birth through college.

I clearly remember seeing men with blue tarps on the roof of Second Baptist Church, trying to cover holes in the roof on what normally would have been a busy Sunday morning.

With the front that brought the storms having moved through, it was cold and cloudy that Sunday morning. The weather matched my mood.

After a few hours of sleep Sunday night, we were back on the helicopter Monday morning to view damage in northeast Arkansas.

On Tuesday, President Clinton flew into Little Rock on Air Force One. The governor then accompanied him to Arkadelphia in a helicopter (Marine One). I rode to Arkadelphia in the car with members of the governor's security detail.

I had the necessary Secret Service credentials needed to be inside the security ropes and walk with the governor and president. Clinton hopped out of the black SUV that had brought him downtown from Arkadelphia's airport.

I guess I was the first person he recognized when he got out of the vehicle. He walked straight to me, put his arm around me in his best "I feel your pain" mode and said: "I'm stunned by how bad this is. We're going to get FEMA in here and do everything necessary to get through this."

Having grown up just down the road in Hot Springs, Clinton was quite familiar with Arkadelphia, of course.

After the walking tour, there was a private reception inside what was then Elk Horn Bank. A generator ran loudly in the background to provide lights.

Near the end of the reception, the president walked over to me and said something I'll never forget: "Don't quote me on this, but most towns in Arkansas could never bounce back from something like this. But Arkadelphia has two universities and three strong banks. Because of that, it will come back."

Come back it did. Both Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University now have dynamic leaders. The state is pumping millions of dollars into the town for transportation improvements. What's known in economic development circles as a supersite sits ready for what I believe will be an electronic vehicle assembly plant or EV battery plant.

I'm proud of the people of my hometown for their hard work and dedication when it came to rebuilding what I've always thought of as one of the South's best small towns.

On March 1, though, we always remember.

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