Massive tornado ransacks Jonesboro as COVID-19 forces city to close playgrounds

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,301 views 

An Arkansas Department of Transportation traffic camera caught images of the tornado that ripped through Jonesboro.

A large, powerful tornado pummeled Jonesboro on Saturday (March 28) and points north of the city as it rampaged through Northeast Arkansas. The storm, possibly as big as an E4 tornado, ransacked the city’s commercial district devastating The Mall at Turtle Creek and caused heavy damage to other businesses and homes in the area.

The Jonesboro Municipal Airport reportedly sustained a near-direct hit. Camfil Farr, a dust collection equipment manufacturer, sustained significant damage, according to social media posts.

A state of emergency has been declared in the city and surrounding Craighead County.

Multiple train cars were overturned near Farville Curve, one with a minor amount of hazardous material that required a HAZMAT team. That leak has been resolved, but more cars remain to be cleared up, Jonesboro Fire Chief Kevin Miller said. The Mall at Turtle Creek, the last big box mall built in the U.S. in 2006 is so badly damaged that officials are unsure of its structural integrity, Miller said.

Unbelievably, there were no reported deaths and only minor injuries, the city reported as of Sunday. At least 22 people were treated at local hospitals, and only two had to be admitted, but they were in stable condition, according to St. Bernards. A 7 p.m. curfew was put into place Saturday night and will extend at least through Sunday, said Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott. The curfew could be extended beyond that depending upon the cleanup.

Crews spent Saturday night and Sunday sifting through piles of mangled steel, wood, glass and other objects trying to determine if anyone might be trapped in businesses or homes. As of Sunday afternoon, there were no reports of missing persons and all roads in the city had been cleared of debris.

The tornado touched down in the commercial district around 5 p.m., but the number of causalities and deaths may have been mitigated by the home quarantine caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, Elliott said. City officials were not sure how many millions of dollars worth of damage was caused by the twister, but Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin said the cleanup and rebuild won’t take days or weeks, it will likely take much longer.

“This is what Northeast Arkansas does in an emergency, and I am so grateful to everyone for hustling to ensure Jonesboro’s safety,” Perrin said. “Recovering from this will take a matter of months and possibly years, not days and weeks. But if we can escape without loss of life, it would be a major blessing. I’m already grateful that we saw this much damage and have had so few reports of injury.”

The National Weather Service is slated to send a team to Jonesboro to determine the size of the tornado.

The natural weather event comes as the COVID-19 outbreak continues to unfold across the region. In order to comply with social distancing advised by health experts and public officials, Jonesboro parks will be open for trail use only, Perrin said.

Other facilities, including playgrounds, pavilions and the remainder of the city’s 20 parks, will be closed until further notice as the city works to deter the spread of COVID-19.

“Cities around the state have already closed their parks entirely,” Perrin said. “And I hate to do it because one of the CDC best practices is getting exercise. But I saw the crowds gathered at Craighead Forest Park on Thursday with my own eyes. We received many calls and emails about it, and even when confronted by park officials, many people refused to disperse. That is irresponsible and disrespectful to the people using the parks appropriately.”

“If people don’t obey the governor’s mandate, we will have no choice but to close even the trails,” he said.

Elliott said he hopes his department doesn’t have to issue citations to people who violate the new park rules, but if violations persist, citations will be issued. City officials will consider a complete park shutdown if violations continue, Perrin added.

Perrin has called state Department of Health and local hospital officials to try to understand why official statistics regarding Jonesboro and Craighead County did not change this week.

“We’ve been told four of 10 cases reported to the Arkansas Department of Health have tested positive,” Perrin said. “But our hospital officials tell us they have been sending test kits to labs for three weeks, and from what I understand, the numbers reach into the hundreds.

“Because the labs are overwhelmed with tests that need to be run from all over the state, the delay in early results has been significant. I have been assured that more labs are coming online and all our tests will be processed soon. I am eager to see that happen,” he said.