Jonesboro Rallies In Wake of Disaster ‘Double Whammy'


Jonesboro Rallies In Wake of Disaster ‘Double Whammy'
Gov. Asa Hutchinson takes a flyover tour of Jonesboro Sunday to assess the damage from Saturday’s tornado.  (Arkansas Governor's Office)

It may feel like everyone is in the same boat during the coronavirus pandemic, but it is clear some cities are dealing with more challenges than others.

An EF-3 tornado struck Jonesboro on Saturday, piling a natural disaster onto the city’s efforts to respond to the ongoing state — and nationwide — health crisis. The storm tore through the south side of the city, striking homes, the airport and businesses that include the Turtle Creek Mall and doing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage, with at least 22 injured.

Calling the two crises a “double whammy,” Bill Campbell, communications director for Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin, said the city was only beginning to realize the extent of the damage and recovery, but praised the community spirit as people and local businesses not affected have rallied to help.

“We’re looking at a lot but we’ve got some great partners and volunteer organizations,” Campbell said.

Jonesboro, with a population of more than 75,000, suffered extensive damage to the mall and the local airport, and Campbell said at least 80 homes were lost and upwards of 200 were damaged. Close to 40 planes were destroyed at the airport, with severe damage to the terminal and hangars.

Local flights are routed to smaller airports nearby for the foreseeable future.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson surveyed the scene Sunday and declared Jonesboro a state disaster area.

Hutchinson is also seeking a federal disaster declaration which would qualify the city for federal aid. The request comes on top of Hutchinson’s call for a major disaster declaration for Arkansas because of the coronavirus, which has cost eight lives in the state and infected more than 500 so far. 

The state’s congressional delegation — U.S. Senators Tom Cotton and John Boozman and Congressmen Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman — are supporting Hutchinson’s request.

“It is tough. But I can tell you we are hoping that President Trump will declare a natural emergency or national disaster,” Campbell said. “We want our senators to get that help with us any way that they can. We’ve had hints that’s a likelihood but we don’t know yet.”

In an odd circumstance caused by the virus, Jonesboro’s restaurants and stores were largely unpopulated Saturday as people have been instructed to isolate and self-quarantine to avoid infection. The situation is credited for the fact there were no fatalities.

“It’s just astounding when you look at all the damage,” Campbell said. 

Estimates are still being made, but Campbell said Tuesday the damage figures could range from $250 million to $400 million.

“That may be conservative, I don’t know yet,” Campbell said.

A national disaster would mean FEMA could reimburse the city up to 75%, as opposed to 35% from the state, Campbell said. A provision in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Emergency Assistance Act states that the federal share for the repair, restoration and replacement of damaged facilities “shall not be less than 75 percent.”

Campbell noted one such expense that could affect taxpayers is the $39.50 per ton charge for dropping debris at the landfill between Jonesboro and Harrisburg, where trucks have at times been lined up for a two-hour wait, with progress slowed because of mud from recent rains.

“We’re concerned about the money at the landfill right now because everybody is going out there to get rid of the debris and that’s going to add up to a pretty good amount on taxpayers if we’re not careful,” Campbell said.

Disaster relief organizations including the Red Cross and the Arkansas Baptist State Convention have shown up to help, Campbell said. Local businesses, like the new Embassy Suites by Hilton Jonesboro Red Wolf Convention Center on the Arkansas State campus, have also thrown open their doors to assist.

“They have tried to think of every need we could possibly have,” Campbell said. 

There has been such a spirit of volunteerism, Campbell said, that the city has requested citizens at least temporarily withhold further support until the city’s needs become more clear.

“We have had such a rally of residents and neighbors and such nice people,” Campbell said. “The mayor will tell you that’s the pride that he gets through all this.”