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Tornadoes in Arkansas Kill Five

January 22, 1999

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Tornadoes ripped across the South for the second time in less than a week, killing at least five people in Arkansas and leaving thousands of people in three states without power early today.

Wave after wave of twisters hit central Arkansas late Thursday afternoon and evening, collapsing roofs, knocking down power poles and leaving trees strewn about the grounds of the governor’s mansion.

Much of eastern Arkansas was under a tornado watch again this morning.

``The lights flickered a couple times, then it went black,″ said Derrick Stallworth, who was shopping in a grocery store when the storm struck. ``I decided to hit the floor, then I saw the roof coming down.″

Severe weather also pounded parts of Mississippi and Louisiana late Thursday, but there were no reports of serious injuries. Just last Sunday, tornadoes tore through Tennessee, resulting in nine deaths.

Two people were killed in the Little Rock area when trees fell on them. In Beebe, 30 miles to the northeast, a 2-month-old baby was blown out of a home and killed and another woman was found dead at her home.

At Center Hill, Searcy school board member Wanda Wilson died when her mobile home was hit, Superintendent Tony Wood said.

``We’re just lucky to be alive,″ Kelton Keathley said after a tornado wrecked his lot in Beebe.

``It swept everything up,″ said Lulynn, his daughter.

Arkansas utilities said the storms left 72,000 customers without power, and authorities opened five shelters from the Little Rock area to Newark, 90 miles to the northeast. Forecasters said perhaps as many as 30 tornadoes hit the state, though it will be days before field checks can confirm an exact number.

The storm that hit Little Rock began southwest of the city, passed near the state’s Fair Grounds and entered a residential area that includes the governor’s mansion. Gov. Mike Huckabee said he and his family were fine.

``I’m going out to help my neighbors,″ he said.

The storm passed through a section of town that includes some of the city’s oldest homes, knocking down trees, some of them 100 years old.

``It was a real one, in the sky and coming down. Black and white. So many different colors,″ said Michelle Johnson, describing the tornado after it hit the Harvest Foods store.

The front of the grocery collapsed inward while 15 or so customers, including Stallworth, shopped inside. Seconds later, the storm had passed and he was pulling others to safety.

``Some aisles you couldn’t even see down,″ Stallworth said. Firefighters used scent-seeking dogs to make sure no one was missed.

At least 60 people were injured, including 45 in Little Rock. Parts of the state also reported grapefruit-size hail.

In Alexandria, La., an apparent tornado ripped apart businesses and downed electrical lines, cutting power to hundreds of residents.

``It was something you could just feel it encircling you,″ said Rhonda Baker as she surveyed the damage to a mall where she was working late processing tax loans. ``My ears started popping as everything went black I couldn’t see nothing _ and I could feel the building shaking.″

Alexandria police Lt. Sherman King said he could not begin to explain the damage to the city’s southwest side. He said police were posted to watch for looters in the city 200 miles northwest of New Orleans.

Another tornado flipped a tractor-trailer over on Interstate 20 near Tallulah, State Police said. The truck, along with a few other vehicles, ended up in the median but no one was seriously injured.

Mobile homes, trees and power lines were also damaged by high winds in Mississippi. In Greenville, just across the Mississippi River from Louisiana, Lori Wilkins recalled the storm.

``It was just like when you watch TV and these big funnel clouds pick up every kind of debris ... It was just like watching something like what I see on `National Geographic,‴ she said.

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