Monday marks 45 years since tornado that tore through Camden

There is much excitement over the total solar eclipse which will cover a wide path across Arkansas and other states on April 8, 2024. Everyone is hoping the clouds will stay away on that date so the eclipse can be viewed by thousands of people who have made plans to be in that area for this once-in-a-lifetime event.

My mind goes back to another April 8th when the clouds definitely did not stay away. It was on that date in 1979 when a high-end F-3 tornado struck the Fairview section of Camden about 5:30 p. m. on a Sunday afternoon. The storm system which spawned the tornado actually started up in Howard County and moved southeast toward Ouachita County. It was a scary storm, dropping large hail in many places before it reached Camden. I was living at Bluff City at that time in a mobile home which is not a good place to be during a tornado. We had a storm cellar and that's where we were when the storm passed over us. When we came out of the storm cellar, we saw that everything was fine except the ground was covered with golf-ball size hail and some scattered base-ball size hail. We soon saw some ambulances pass by our place headed toward Camden and figured something bad must have happened somewhere.

The tornado touched down west of Camden somewhere near the intersection of Hwy. 4 and 376. The tornado sirens had already been turned on because of reports of a severe storm headed toward Camden and that probably saved some lives as people huddled in the safest place they could find in their homes. The screen of the Razorback Drive-in on Hwy. 79 was destroyed as it passed over that area. It crossed Cash Rd. near the railroad track and turned slightly headed directly toward the Cardinal Shopping Center which received very heavy damage. The Minute Man restaurant, the branch bank, and the Piggly Wiggly store were left standing but every building had major damage. The shopping center was considered totally destroyed.

Many nice homes east of the shopping center were destroyed or heavily damaged. The tornado then headed toward the Fairview elementary school causing more damage there. Thankfully, it was Sunday and school was not in session. Authorities soon swarmed to the storm area. Trees and power lines blocking streets had to be cleared to get emergency vehicles into the area to assist those who were injured. Volunteers with chain saws helped to clear the roads. The most important thing was to account for all the residents who were in the storm's path. It was feared that some may not have survived the terrible destruction. There was great urgency in this since darkness was fast approaching.

Twenty-seven people were admitted to the hospital with injuries and eight were kept overnight, but there were no deaths. Some said it was a miracle that nobody was killed and many credited the warning sirens for saving lives. The warning sirens for Camden had only been in operation for a little over a year.

The Camden News had several articles about the storm including many pictures of the damage. After taking care of the injured, the clean-up began. Power had to be restored to the area. Disaster centers were set up and the area was blocked off by police to prevent looting. The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided food for workers and residents. Shelters were set up at the Fairview United Methodist church, Cullendale First Baptist church, Immanuel Baptist church, and the Camden Middle School. Gov. Bill Clinton toured the storm damage area on Monday and met with local officials and residents. Gov. Clinton and Senator David Pryor asked for a federal disaster declaration which was approved three days after the storm hit. The Fairview schools were canceled for the following week. Since the elementary school was heaving damaged, the students in the lower grades had classes in some of the local churches. Everyone affected by this tornado had a story to tell. The Camden News reported some of these stories. People told where they were when the storm hit, what they did to protect themselves, and many reported that they prayed for their safety.

Although the most severe damage was in Camden, there was also much timber damage in the tornado's path. At that time, I was working for International Paper Co. as a forest technician. It was decided that we needed to get an idea of how much timber was destroyed, so three days after the storm, a small place was chartered to do an aerial assessment of damage to the company's timber land. Since I had worked extensively with aerial photographs in my normal work, I was chosen to ride along on the flight to help point out the company land from the air. There were five of us on board the small plane--mostly upper-level supervisors. They wanted me to sit in the front of the plane next to the pilot. I had never flown in an airplane before, and needless to say, I was a bit nervous. I thought to myself--I hope nothing happens to the pilot because I would be the one who have to land the plane and I didn't have the slightest idea of how to do that.

It was a very windy day when we boarded the plane at the Camden airport. The pilot got radio clearance to fly over the storm-damaged area and soon we were in the air headed west toward Prescott. We flew over much flooded timber land along the Little Missouri River. I felt better when we got to Prescott and I could see open fields below us. Sometimes we would hit an air pocket and it seemed the plane would fall a few feet due to the heavy winds. It wasn't a good day to be flying in a small plane. We stayed in the air almost two hours and flew the tornado path twice before returning to the airport. I was glad to get my feet back on the ground.

Later that afternoon, another severe storm system hit Camden. Everybody was already nervous because of the recent tornado. Our office at that time was in the old Horne Drug store building across from the library and telephone office. The tornado sirens went off again and it was decided that we needed to evacuate our office. There was really no safe place to go, but we joined many other people who had congregated in the concrete parking garage at the Camden post office. It was a bad storm but thankfully, there was not another tornado. That was a very hectic day for me--getting to fly in my first and only airplane flight and having to take refuge in a parking garage during a severe thunderstorm.

I hope the weather will cooperate on April 8, 2024 so everyone can experience the solar eclipse, but as we all know, this is the time of year when we can have severe storms and tornadoes in Arkansas. I think the moral of this story is to think about the safest place to be in your home during a severe storm and to pay attention to the weather sirens. Almost everyone agreed that they saved lives on that terrible day back in 1979.

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