DAMASCUS, Ark. – Smoke rose from burning heaps of wreckage Saturday as residents of rural Arkansas cleaned up what was left of their homes after deadly tornadoes scoured a state that has been plagued by severe weather this year.
All that remained of Shelia Massey's home were a chimney, a bathroom wall, and a bathtub that was her storm shelter.
"God's hand came down and held us there while the rest of the house just blew away," said Massey, 54. "That's all there was to it. The Lord held us there."
A child poking through the rubble found a photograph of Massey's husband, who was not at home when the violent weather struck Friday. The storms killed seven people, damaged or destroyed about 400 homes, and knocked out electrical and telephone service for thousands of customers in 18 counties.
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Altogether, meteorologists said more than 25 tornadoes may have touched down across middle America late Thursday and early Friday, but Arkansas was the hardest hit.
Down U.S. 65 from Massey's house, parishioners at Southside Baptist Church salvaged what was left of their old sanctuary and their new church, still under construction.
Men backed up pickup trucks to the front door of the old church and loaded up boxes filled with red-leather hymnals. The storm had collapsed the roof of the their new sanctuary, bending its steel beams like sipping straws.
In the countryside outside Damascus, John Rusin, 62, said he and his wife, Marsha, 60, took shelter in a small room along with two dogs after forecasters broke in on a television show they were watching. Winds almost ripped a mattress out of his arms as he held it over his wife, he said.
"The pressure on it felt like my ears were going to pop off my head," he said.
Only after the storm passed did he realize it had picked up their house and moved it 65 feet off its foundation.
Public officials offered comfort and support. U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., and a staff member shook hands with volunteers cleaning the church, and Gov. Mike Beebe toured damaged areas. He has declared 11 counties disaster areas.
National Weather Service teams were sent out to survey damage for their count of the tornadoes, and state emergency management workers helped county officials with damage assessments. Arkansas National Guard members were on hand to provide security.
Elsewhere Saturday, four weak tornadoes tore through northern Tennessee in the early morning, ripping mobile homes from foundations, snapping trees and destroying a wooden pavilion at the fairgrounds in Clarksville.
The tornadoes were spawned by an arc of strong thunderstorms moving through the South. At least two dozen homes were damaged and power knocked out in Mississippi's Union County. No serious injuries were reported in the storms.
A line of storms crossing southeastern Louisiana damaged trees and homes. The Weather Service reported 6 inches of rain in parts of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes, with estimates of 10 inches in places, meteorologist Bob Wagner said. Flooding was expected along the Bogue Falaya River at Camp Covington, in St. Tammany, but there was no immediate estimate of how many people lived in the area.
In Arkansas, Massey, like others in rural Van Buren County, learned of the approaching tornado from a friend who lived miles south in the larger town of Perryville and had seen television news reports.
Massey and her daughter ran to the bathroom with Massey's three grandsons, ages 2 weeks, 2 and 4. The boys and their mother slumped down in the tub, covered by sofa cushions, while Massey held on to the outside. Massey said she felt the house shake and the bathtub begin to move as the storm hit. A wall fell on them, but instead of causing injury it provided protection against other debris.
Catastrophic weather has been a recurring event in Arkansas this year, with at least 26 deaths, most occurring in rural communities and on farms far from the nearest warning siren.
Six of those who died Friday resided among the rolling hills and piney woods of central Arkansas. A 4-year-old girl and her grandparents died when a tornado struck their home near Bee Branch, north of Damascus. A teenage girl died in the city of Siloam Springs in northwest Arkansas.
Near Center Ridge in Conway County, Beebe paused briefly to watch a bulldozer shove drywall, bedding and a television set into a burn pile.
Beebe acknowledged that state officials have become adept at responding to disasters since tornadoes killed 13 Arkansans on Feb. 5. After that bout of severe weather, the state endured a foot-deep snowfall; later, at least five people died in widespread flooding.
"It never gets any easier," Beebe said.
After walking past mud-stained clothes drying on an uprooted tree, Beebe spoke with Bobby Rose, 43, who was helping clean up after Friday's storm. The governor offered his condolences to residents of the rural neighborhood, but Rose remained upbeat.
"This is Arkansas," Rose said. "We hold up."