Recovering & Rebuilding with Wynne Mayor Jennifer Hobbs

Recovering & Rebuilding with Wynne Mayor Jennifer Hobbs
Jennifer and Randell Hobbs have two grown children, Braxton and Grace. (Terrance Armstard)

Jennifer Hobbs and her husband, Randell, have been married since 1993. Randell and his family operate a farm implement dealership and a family farm. Hobbs worked in her family’s restaurant business, Mike’s Family Foods. She began her career at Quality Foods (now Performance Foodservice) in 2001, where she worked until becoming the first female mayor of Wynne in 2019.

Hobbs graduated from East Arkansas Community College in May 1994 and completed her education at Arkansas State University in May 1996 with a Bachelor of Science in business marketing.

It’s been almost two months since the March 31 tornado that devastated Wynne. How is the recovery coming?

I believe the recovery is coming along better than anyone could have expected. We suffered extensive damage and were all overwhelmed at the outpouring of help that showed up to assist our community. We are still in the cleanup phase. We are so grateful to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders for the help the state sent as well as requesting assistance from President Joe Biden. The Federal Emergency Management Agency giving us 30 days of our allowable expense for cleanup was key for a small community like ours. We do not have a large tax base or great resources at our disposal. We had tried to prepare in advance, and I was proud of where we stood financially until the disaster hit. The expense is astronomical, and I do not believe any city the size of ours can be prepared enough for the financial impact.

How long do you expect the rebuilding process to take?

It will take years to rebuild. We have to complete the cleanup process before the rebuilding can begin. Our wastewater treatment facility took a direct hit and was completely lost. We believe rebuilding that will take possibly two years. We are hoping homes can be rebuilt in 18 months to two years. Our high school was lost and it’s getting a temporary site set up now to house high school for up to four years. Officials are hopeful it won’t take that long to rebuild.

How would you rate the tornado response from state and federal agencies?

I have been amazed at the support we received. We had multiple state agencies on hand within minutes of the tornado passing. Governor Sanders visited our community multiple times. The Arkansas Division of Emergency Management has been very hands-on with walking us through the process. We have had some great people from FEMA working with our community as well. I have really been surprised at how much assistance our small town has received from the state and federal agencies. We have not been overlooked or forgotten.

What other challenges does your city face? 

Wynne is a great community. Before the tornado we were working to bring jobs and retail to our town. We are in a wonderful location nestled at the side of Crowley’s Ridge, and we have a beautiful state park right outside our city that has great amenities to offer visitors. We need partners to invest in our community with a few more restaurants and retail options. We are in a great location to live and have that small-town pace, but in a short drive you can be in Jonesboro, Memphis or Little Rock for any “big city” needs. 

What major projects had to be put on hold because of the tornado? When will those restart?

We had some grants projects we wanted to apply for and have decided to put a hold on for now. We have a couple of small one-lane metal bridges in town for which we were hoping to receive grant funding to put in full two-lane concrete bridges for safety and drainage. Our school buses must cross those, and we feel those need to be changed out, for safety, primarily. We were in discussions with the railroad because it owns the ground for the most centrally located park in town. It is very outdated and in need of upgrades. We are unable to put taxpayer dollars into the park because the city does not own it. We were hoping to reach an agreement with the railroad to have the property donated to the city or at least purchase the property so we could begin to make improvements to Cottonwood Park. Finally, we try to do major street maintenance every summer to keep the city streets in the best possible condition. After the tornado we are putting our planned projects on hold with the exception that we were awarded a state aid street grant project for this summer. The bid on the project that we had identified, and for which we needed the state’s assistance, came in at more than $405,000. The grant funds $300,000, so the city will have to pay the remainder. We are going ahead with that project, but the remaining projects will have to wait until the cleanup of our city is completed. We have a limited amount of money in our street fund, and we have many roads and sidewalks that will need to be repaired after the cleanup is completed. All of our projects will be put on hold until we see the full financial impact the tornado has on our community. We do not yet know how our monthly sales tax is being impacted from the storm. We do not know what the expense will be that is our responsibility after FEMA reimbursement. Projects are being put on hold indefinitely until time reveals the full financial impact of the March 31 tornado.

What are some aspects of Wynne of which you’re particularly proud?

To say I am proud of Wynne is an understatement. The way our community stepped up to help each other during this disaster has been amazing. I have seen time and again that when someone in our community has a need, Wynne always rallies and supports that need. After the tornado that was magnified. People stepped up and helped across town. It was beyond neighbor helping neighbor. In many cases the neighbors could not help themselves because there was so much destruction, so they just left their mess and went to help the one who might have something salvageable. We saw farmers and contractors with equipment from all over our county driving backhoes, excavators, skid steers, loaders and all manner of equipment to town to move trees off of cars, homes and our streets so emergency personnel could get around town. It has been nothing short of amazing. We have a core group of volunteers who are still running our donation center on a daily basis. They are freely giving of their time still two months after the tornado; they are showing up and serving. They are transitioning from emergency supplies to long-term recovery and have no plans of quitting until homes are rebuilt. My team, which is what I call each member of my management team, has been phenomenal. I am so proud of the team I have built here in Wynne. At 5 p.m. March 31, it did not matter what your role was prior to the tornado — we were on storm recovery detail and everyone stepped up. Our city employees have been amazing. They have put in extremely long hours, doing duties that were not in their normal job description, and I have not heard one single complaint. I am so proud of Wynne and her people. We are a great community. We took a terrible hit, but we are survivors and we will thrive.