Vilonia Residents Reflect on Recovery One Month After Tornado

VILONIA, AR - Familiar sounds echoed out from Keith McCord's mechanic shop, even if the sights are different from 31 days before.

"You couldn't walk walk without walking on something," his wife, Pricilla McCord, said. 

"The building was all out here," Keith McCord said. "Across the street cars wereeverywhere."

The station has been in operation in Vilonia for about 37 years. It is now empty; stalls with a makeshift sign and an awning for oil changes are really all that's left. 

"We all made it out alive so you have to do what we can with what we got," Pricilla said. "We have the Hug 'N Hall made into a makeshift office. We're doing what we can."

On April  27, Vilonia was among several towns hit by an E-F 4 tornado that tracked more than 40 miles across Central Arkansas. 

"It's changed everbody's lives forever. It's changed the landscape forever. Landmarks I've grown up with since a boy are gone," said Vilonia Mayor James Firestone. 

In the month's span since the storm struck, the destruction has left its scars. According to Firestone, 90 percent of Vilonia businesses were impacted, and a total of 159 structures was the latest count of collateral damage.

"The sun came up and you could see how bad it was. We were thinking 'Gosh, it'll be months and months.' But  in less than a month's time, we've made a big recovery."

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency there have been 1,337 storm victims register in Arkansas and nearl $2.3 million in individual disaster assistance has been approved to help folks get back on their feet. 

According to the Small Business Administration, it's approved about $2.5 million in disaster loans for small businesses, but still frustrations have floated in to Firestone about lack of access to assistance. 

"I know there are frustrations, and I understand them," Firestone said. "The message I am hearing is that people have applied and have been denied. We're encouraging them to call FEMA or the SBA and ask why. We don't want people to miss out on help they need because they didn't ask the right questions." 

According to Firestone, the damage done in the business community could have a ripple effect on the city's ability to fend off its own financial shortfall. 

"We're like everybody else. It takes a chunk out of income when things are down for weeks like this," he said. "It's going to be a substantial impact with the loss of sales taxes, damaged buildings being off the sewage and water lines so that money won't be coming in on bills."

According to Firestone, there are exisitng programs to help individuals who need assistance with housing or other needs, but criteria for businesses are more difficult and have lead to strains for owners. 

"It's difficult to meet that criteria for some of those assistance programs," Firestone said. "These business owners have lost a month of income at this point. They still have the loans they have to pay and debt services to answer for prior to when the storm hit. They need help to survive, right now. They don't need a handout, but they do need a hand up to get over this rough patch." 

The city has waived business and building permit fees to try and help out in the process, though the city is still asking people to apply for permits to allow for safety inspections. 

"We don't want this process to be any more difficult than it has to be," Firestone said. 

As far as the city's financial future, Firestone said Vilonia has identified a Community Disaster Loan program that could help if there's a shortfall. 

"We submitted several years' worth of operating budgets to see if we might be approved for that," he said. "The money would just be available if there was a gap. Whatever we used we would then pay back. And if we don't have to have it, then there's no loss to the city for that." 

While the city does have money in reserve, Firestone said there isn't much wiggle room for extra spending or lack of funds coming in. According to him, the utility departments like water and sewage carefully craft their budgets based on usage. 

"Nearly 200 buildings not being on the system for six or so months is going to be a big impact," Firestone said. 

According to Governor Mike Beebe's spokesperson Matt DeCample, both the mayors of Mayflower and Vilonia had expressed concern over a loss of sales tax revenues. Discussions are continuing, DeCample said, to see if specialized assistance might be available. 

"The challenge as I understand it is that we're in a unique situation," Firestone said. "There are certain programs that exist to help in disasters like this. But this sales tax issue is a particular one. I have a feeling that the governor and our other government officials will help us find a way to work it out if it's possible." 

As for the McCords, they figure it will take six months and about $1 million to get back up and running, though not to the full capacity of where they were before the storm struck. It's the cost of replacing and rolling forward after 37 years of standing strong.

"It's very intimidating. That's with equipment and everything...we have to get everything new," Pricilla McCord said. 

Despite all the obstacles, the McCord family and their employees will be happy to greet you with a smile if you stop by. And they say they feel nothing but grateful for the help they've received so far. 

"We couldn't have done all of this alone," Keith McCord said. 

"We just want to say 'thank you' to all those people who have helped," Pricilla added. "We know that's small, but we really do mean it." 

Two FEMA disaster recovery centers remain open for the area, one in Mayflower and one in Vilonia. On Saturday, roughly 20 people came in for assistance. 

According to a FEMA spokesperson those offices will only remain open as demand remains there. As numbers dwindle, a closing date becomes more likely. Tornado survivors who need assistance are encouraged to register before June 2, but have until June 30 to apply. Those impacted by the April storm can find more information on assistance from FEMA and response tips by clicking here

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