Ten years after the tornado, Arkadelphia is back—to square one
Joe Nix remembers the moments before the storm. A retired professor of chemistry at Ouachita Baptist University, Nix is known around here as The Water Guy. Before the winds blew, he was out on DeGray Lake with some visiting scientists. They were trying to figure out why the state’s eagle population was suddenly disappearing. Nix remembers gliding along the lake, feeling pockets of unseasonably warm air for a March 1st afternoon, followed quickly by cold air. Warm, cold, warm, cold.
Steve Fellers, the editor of the Siftings Herald, was technically taking a day off that slow Saturday morning, as his newspaper publishes Monday through Friday. The editor and graduate of Henderson State, now media relations director at his alma mater, remembers standing on his deck that morning, looking at the sky, feeling a chill. Hours later, he would be standing in the rubble that used to be downtown, snapping roll after roll of film. He and his staff would stay up all night. A special edition of the paper would go to press at 7 a.m.
Percy Malone had left his pharmacy on Main Street for a meeting with another pharmacy owner the next corner over. Tornado sirens whined. The sky turned hazy and dark. “Don’t worry,” the other pharmacist assured Malone. “There’ll be no tornado here. We’ve never had one.” They went inside the man’s office just ahead of the storm. Malone’s ears popped hard. The two men huddled against a wall, waiting for it to collapse.
Doug Kershaw was in Little Rock when he heard that a tornado was hurtling toward his hometown. He jumped in the car and raced back to his family on Pine Street. By the time he got home, after talking his way past police barricades, Kershaw was shocked by what greeted him: Nothing much. “There wasn’t a leaf blown in my yard,” he remembered. “I thought, ‘Boy, is this overrated.’ ” Then he strolled downtown.
It’s been 10 years and five months since a tornado pierced the heart of this Clark County town, home of Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State universities, home to some 10,000 proud folks, nurturer of a governor, innocent li’l cousin to hard-livin’ Hot Springs, a leafy-green Southern lady splashing in rivers and lakes.
It’s been 10 years since Arkadelphia was the featured tease on the Today Show, footage of what remained of the Clark County Courthouse filling America’s television screens—like a movie trailer for a disaster film. Not unlike the images we’re all seeing now from Minneapolis.
Since then, America has suffered and somehow survived 9/11 and Katrina, floods on the Plains, deadly bridge collapses, underground steampipe explosions, wildfires in the West and deepfreezes in the East. We’ve grown accustomed, maybe a little numbed, to unforgiving photos and unrelenting video of disasters, natural and man-made and something in-between.
In New York, where the terrorists took down the Twin Towers almost six years ago, they’re still debating and arguing and putting off the rebuilding.
In New Orleans, where the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina drowned the city two summers back, they’re still debating and arguing and putting off and preening and generally behaving like dolittle politicians in New Orleans.
In Arkadelphia, a city has been rebuilt, its downtown heart pumping again, steadily if not quite strong enough. It has rebuilt so that now it can finally get down to the business of starting over.
Lessons abound from the Arka-doover Project, and lots of other disaster-ravaged cities are paying attention. Call it Rebuilding 101: Don’t expect enough money—the government’s not an ATM, nor should it be; find smart folks who’ll work on the cheap, or even better, just for the experience and the feelgood of it; aim high but be realistic; gear up for controversy, naysayers, Pollyannas and dreamers; find somebody who’ll get folks thinking and making decisions pronto; understand that all the rebuilding won’t solve all the usual problems; and understand that once the rebuilding is done, you’re just beginning again.
It’s unfair to compare an Arkadelphia with a New Orleans or even a few blocks of lower Manhattan. But maybe those big cities—not to mention the small and medium ones doomed to incite Nature’s next tempest, the next Greensburg, Kansas, or Dumas, Arkansas—could learn something from Arkansas’ comeback kid.
It’s still not much of a welcome into town, taking Exit 78 off Interstate-30 and winding through Caddo Valley, through the usual run of Quality Inns and Exxons and McDonald’s restaurants, past mammoth car dealerships and a sign that advertises that “Jesus is First at Second Baptist Church,” not to mention the closed, dilapidated Good Times Cinema that leaves the university students in Arkadelphia without a movie theater. Can you imagine? Why, whatever will those college kids do to entertain themselves?
I’m here on the first really hot day of summer. It’s one of those days that’s hazy from the heat, and just stepping outside from the A/C into the wet-blanket humidity makes you feel tired. I can’t remember the last time I was in Arkadelphia; it was pre-tornado. Yet I’ve been to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast nearly a half-dozen times since Katrina and the Waves changed all that.
I park on Main Street and start walking. Looks perfectly normal. Nothing to see here, folks, move along. Just another Southern downtown trying to beat the odds.
A fella walks by in a business-quick walk. O, passerby, do you know where the tornado hit? The man turns out to be Doug Kershaw, a regional sales manager for an outfit called the SGL Carbon Group. He smiles a friendly smile and proceeds to give directions. Detailed directions. As if the tornado hit last week. As if he’s given this tour before.
As he heads to his office, I follow his verbal map, wandering along a street nearer the river, on Clay—still in the heart of the heart of downtown Arkadelphia. Staring at the new Town Hall that bookends the refurbished, antique courthouse, I hear somebody shout for my attention.
It’s Mr. Kershaw. He’s loping toward me with something in his hand. It’s a newspaper. He unfolds the March 4, 1997, edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A four-column photo dominates the front page. If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake it for New Orleans’ post-diluvian Ninth Ward, which now bears a striking resemblance to a city dump. Goodness, was it really that bad? How soon we forget.
THE NEW ARKADELPHIA
It didn’t take much persuading for Joe Nix to agree to give me an insider’s tour of The New Arkadelphia. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was a major player in the cleanup and rebuilding. He’s got a feel for this town. So we’d follow the route of the tornado, and he’d fill me in on the reconstruction. What worked, what didn’t, what changed, what never will.
Nix retired from teaching a few years back, but you can still find him on campus, in the bowels of the Jones Science Building in an office labeled Biology Bulk. (“It was a bulk storage room,” he explains.)
The professor sports long, cottonwhite hair that touches his shoulder. He wears glasses and his suspenders cover a blue-and-white checked shirt. He apologizes for the dog hairs that cover the interior of his red Nissan SUV—our tour bus for the day.
Come to find out—first from Nix and then from lots of others—this small Southern town was reconstructed in part by a native New Yorker of Russian descent with a native New Yorker’s accent and attitude. David Glasser was the head of the University of Arkansas’ Community Development Center, a branch of the architecture department, when Arkadelphia was struck.
Somebody in town was desperate enough to call the university for help, hoping for some pro-bono brainpower and cheap labor. Glasser and some students came down, surveyed the wreckage, set up shop and promptly began sketching a new Arkadelphia.
Glasser ended up staying for two years.
Nix remembers a public meeting not long after the tornado hit, organized by the 2025 Commission, a consortium of pols and businessfolk who spearheaded the early rebuilding efforts. The middle and late rebuilding efforts, too. Glasser got up to speak.
“People were looking around like, ‘Who is this Yankee gonna come down here and tell us how to do things?’ ” Nix says. “By the end of the meeting, he had us eating out of his hand.”
Glasser retired from the UA in 2003 and now lives in Datca, Turkey, with his wife, a Turkish woman who is also an architect and professor of architecture. We exchanged e-mails about Arkadelphia:
“There were several steps involved: 1) to assess the extent and nature of the damage, and, 2) to start suggesting strategies for rebuilding, giving some thought to improving prior conditions, rather than mere replacement. In this regard, the students were most helpful developing at one point a huge model of the downtown area, incorporating suggestions and recommendations for new buildings, road configurations, etc.”
Percy Malone, the state senator and pharmacy owner, says Glasser’s greatest contribution was “challenging people to think in new ways. Sometimes he ruffled some feathers, but he got us to make decisions—and fast.”
Example: A Hallmark store downtown had been really creamed. When the owner saw Glasser lingering nearby, he asked for a re-design. Glasser, who was with Nix at the time, got to work. He laid out a long sheet of paper across the hood of Nix’s car. He started to sketch, quickly ran out of room, and moved the paper to the sidewalk, where he finished his vision for the new Hallmark store.
The owner ended up using much of the design.
During that summer of ’97, a student team lived and worked in Arkadelphia, getting to know the people and the town, creating this idyllic plan for the future. The students’ model of a new Arkadelphia included everything from streetscapes to streetcars, retail shops and restaurants, lots of people and trees and activity, the whole urbanized, gentrified dream.
Alas, here’s where the Fairy Tale met cold, hard, cash-strapped reality.
There just wasn’t much money. The city’s 2025 Commission was funded by the non-profit Ross Foundation, but money for reconstruction came in dribs and drabs. Private businesses were largely on their own. So the town made do. The commission got its streetscaping, but not the streetcars. It was private businesses and investors who really came through, converting Glasser’s abstract ideas into bricks and mortar.
One big success was the old trailer park just west of downtown. When the tornado hit there first, it scattered trailers across the city, leaving only one standing in the park.
When Nix drives me through that neighborhood, it looks more like a movie set from The Truman Show than a place to be avoided even before the storm.
Senator Malone credits a government program that, as government programs go, sounds downright innovative. It was called the Equity Buy-Down Program. The idea was to encourage folks to rebuild in the neighborhood surrounding the trailer park, which has been turned into a good-looking apartment complex called Cutler Terrace. Using federal dollars, the program would pick up 30 percent of the cost of the house—up to $20,000—so long as the homeowner had decent credit and agreed to live there for seven years. No renting.
According to Malone, there’s been only one foreclosure in the neighborhood, which now sparkles. “It’s probably the most successful program in America,” Malone says. It’s a statement that would sound laughably hyperbolic if he weren’t talking about, well, a government program. That bar is set low.
Anyway, the new ’hood impresses. It’s probably the most successful part of the rebuilt Arkadelphia. Which has left a number of citizens I talk with only halfsatisfied. One prominent professional notes that the town still bleeds jobs, its population has stagnated, and “the city’s psyche hasn’t been the same” since the storm.
“It seems money was always at the root of our inability to do some things,” Nix says. “I guess I also feel a little disappointment that we could not have done something to make the downtown area really sustainable but . . . that is a very complex problem. And who is to say that downtown should be the focus of the retail operation of the town?”
As an example, consider Percy Malone’s pharmacy. At first, he rebuilt it in the style of an old-timey drug store with a soda fountain. It looked great. Made Southern Living. He says he employed six people. Now it’s the less-impressive headquarters for his business, helping nursing-home residents fill prescriptions. He employs 35 people. So whaddya want? Style points or jobs?
“When we moved here in 2000, I liked how well downtown was doing,” says Phil Baldwin, CEO of Southern Bancorp, which owns Elk Horn Bank in Arkadelphia. “But the last three, four, five years, it’s been downhill. We lost a lot of employers in the industrial park, probably a net loss of 900 to 1,000 jobs. You pull that many jobs out, it hits small businesses hard. We started seeing a lot of vacancies downtown.”
Pretty as the new downtown was, people bought their shoes at Wal-Mart.
A PROUD MAKEOVER
In the end, you can drive through Arkadelphia 10 years after and never guess that the Big One blew through. A neighborhood to be avoided got a makeover to be proud of. Parts of downtown look spiffy and new but not out of place, and, according to Senator Malone, more people work downtown now than before the storm. At one end of Clay Street, the rebuilt courthouse stands as a controversial victory for the preservationists; the still-new Town Hall beautifully anchors the street’s other end. The post office stayed downtown. The Ross Foundation moved its headquarters there.
But population has moved west, out where the Wal-Mart and lots of chain stores and restaurants have grown like topsy. Folks don’t come downtown to shop any more, or eat. About the only restaurant that seems to thrive is the Honeycomb, run by a non-profit outfit called Group Living.
Still, there’s life here, unlike in the historic centers of many Arkansas towns, including the capital city. (If you ever want to get really depressed, stand at the corner of Capitol and Main in Little Rock.) As one South Arkansas businessman told me, not wanting to be named, “In some small Arkansas communities, a tornado might actually revitalize some areas.”
In June, Clark County’s voters overwhelmingly approved a tax increase for economic development. The vote was largely a result of a strategic community planning effort (read: lots of town meetings) engineered by Baldwin and Southern Bancorp, which developed a similar plan for Helena-West Helena. In other words, after 10 years in the storm-damaged wilderness, the city of Arkadelphia is now ready to start over.
You don’t think New Orleans or Greensburg, Kan., would take that deal? Or Dumas?