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Grieving Arkansas picks up pieces after deadly tornadoes

March 3, 1997

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Needing a place to hide from the approaching tornado, Lee Rhodes ran from the auto shop where he worked to a cinder-block grocery store instead of his trailer just a few steps away.

He was crushed when a dairy case fell on him. His trailer was untouched.

``The store blew completely away,″ said Gordon ``Pete″ Caple, Rhodes’ boss at Caple’s Garage on the south side of Little Rock. ``The funny thing _ he would have been safer in the trailer. The storm didn’t even touch it.″

Rhodes was one of at least 24 people killed as a series of tornadoes hit the state Saturday; several hundred others were injured. Storms were also blamed for at least 19 deaths in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Mississippi.

President Clinton authorized federal emergency aid for storm victims in a 260-mile path stretching from southwest Arkansas to its northeast corner. The president also said he would visit the state Tuesday.

``Hillary and I are deeply saddened by this tragic loss of life and property,″ Clinton said Sunday. ``The storm hit places and people we know well, and our hearts and prayers are with everyone who lost loved ones, homes and businesses.″

Fifteen people died just south of Little Rock, while downtown Arkadelphia, 75 miles away, was reduced to rubble. Six died in the town and the surrounding countryside. An additional three died in northeast Arkansas.

Arkadelphia’s most noted resident, Whitewater convict James McDougal, came through unscathed.

``Well, I survived,″ he said. ``The only way it affected me directly was my electricity was out.″

The 61-year-old Rhodes moved to Little Rock from Nebraska _ Caple wasn’t exactly sure where _ about seven years ago and traded his labor for accommodations in the trailer behind the Quonset hut auto garage. He had finished work Saturday when a co-worker’s mother called to warn of the coming storm. Rhodes had to choose between the grocery store and his unanchored trailer.

``They saw it coming and decided to get inside,″ Caple said. ``They had gone down to the grocery store to get out of the storm when the roof blew off it, the wall came in and one of the big cooler boxes fell over.″

Rhodes was killed. His co-worker needed stitches, but lived.

Gov. Mike Huckabee said the state had 14 tornadoes in a five-hour period Saturday _ more twisters than the state had all of last year. It was the worst single-day death toll in Arkansas since May 15, 1968, when tornadoes killed 45 people.

``The destruction was so intense, the storm was so ferocious and the path that it cut was so broad and wide,″ Huckabee told Little Rock station KATV today. ``It was as if someone had taken a bulldozer, a huge bulldozer, and started driving down in Hempstead County and just drove it until they left the state.″

At College Station, near Little Rock, the body of L.B. Porter, 62, was found in a muddy ditch 9 1/2 hours after the storm.

``My brother was sitting in his living room when the tornado hit,″ Austin Porter Sr. said as he picked up tattered photo albums and put them in plastic bags. ``His body was found in the ditch. I can replace some things, but I can’t replace my brother. He’s gone.″

Porter was visiting friends in Mississippi and returned to find his home split in half, his belongings draped in cotton candy-colored insulation. Another 30 houses in the poor community were gutted.

In Sardis, Charles Dunn wept for his parents, who died as the storm ripped apart their home on its march southwest of Little Rock.

``I don’t understand it,″ he said. ``It would be different if someone had done something to them, then I could go and settle the score. But there’s not a damn thing you can do. I don’t know why it took them away.″

The same winds that left Dunn’s parents dead in their back yard lifted his 2-year-old nephew, Kyle Glasco, out of the home. He was found in trees more than 1,000 feet away, uninjured, missing only one shoe.

Dunn found the missing shoe Sunday.

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