Remembering Arkansas' Tornado Outbreak of December 1982
Published: December 31, 2010
It was nearly 70 degrees here yesterday and I remarked to several people if it were March or April, I would be very worried. Today, this last day of 2010, the clock-radio woke me with the news a tornado had torn through northwest Arkansas killing three people, and that one town in southwest Missouri had been hit with baseball-sized hail. In North Dakota, at the other end of the storm, a blizzard had caused a 100-car pileup on Interstate 94 and the governor had declared a statewide snow emergency.
In our town north of Kansas City, the cold front had passed through overnight without drama. It was 26 degrees and there was a dusting of snow on the ground. I considered it a luxury.
I learned to be worried about unseasonably warm weather when I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas in the late summer of 1982. I knew I was moving smack into one of the most tornado prone areas of the country. I didn’t think my first encounter with Arkansas' legendary nasty weather would happen around Christmas. Two of the worst tornado outbreaks ever in the state occurred in December of that year, on December 2-3 and again on December 23-25.
I worked the overnight shift my first year in Little Rock, so I was sound asleep when the tornado sirens blew in the late afternoon of December 2nd. The siren in my downtown neighborhood was located at the fire station less than a block away and whenever it blew, it would rattle our apartment windows and send the cats running for cover. Being awakened by the oscillating blare had me disoriented but that changed the moment I looked out the window. The sky outside was a deep, sickly green color I had never seen before. I opened the front door and the air was deathly still. Oh-hhh… shit. I had read about stuff like this, and the outcome was never good. I got dressed in a near panic. There was no basement in the big-house-made-into-apartments I lived in, so I ran out the door, jumped into the car and took off. I figured if I was going to go, it would be with my wheels spinning.
There was a tornado with this cell which struck Cammack Village, only five miles to the west. Once I determined my neighborhood wasn’t in danger, I got cleaned up and headed in to the television station. The assignment editor sent me out with a photographer and we headed southwest along I-30 to search for storm-damaged areas. By now, it was dark. In the backroads near the town of Salem, we drove up on an old general store that was fully engulfed in flames and burning so hotly, firefighters couldn’t get anywhere near it. Lightning had struck the building and started the fire. The wind hard and steady and the night sky flickered angrily as we got our video.
The whole night felt surreal and there was a persistent sense of menace about it, a sensation punctuated later that night as I stood outdoors behind the TV station. It was then I saw something else I had never seen before or since: a neon-green bolt of lightning flashed overhead followed by bright green flecks of electricity, like small spheres. Some time later I asked a meteorologist at the National Weather Service about what I had seen. He told me green lightning can appear “when the atmosphere is extremely churned up and you are close to a tornado”.
“Oh,” I said.
On our overnight and early morning newscasts, we ran another amazing story done that afternoon by one of our reporters (Terry Caldwell, for those of you who remember) who rode a fishing boat through the flooded streets of downtown Clinton, Arkansas (Van Buren County). Water more than 8 feet high submerged storefronts and lapped away at window awnings. As the boat made its way down the street, there was muffled yelling from inside one of the buildings. A man who had been trapped by the floodwaters managed to get out of the front door and was helped into the boat. A clip from Terry's story made the CBS Evening News.
As terrible as December 2nd was, the following day would be just as bad, another day of “roar and pour”. The storm front that had spawned all of the floods and tornadoes had stalled, neatly bisecting the state right down the middle on a north-south line. At least 12 inches of rain fell in 24 hours in some areas over the western half of Arkansas. Friday, December 3rd was the only time in 12 years in television or radio I can recall casually using the word "tornado" in a 6 a.m. weather forecast -- as in "showers and thunderstorms today with thunderstorms becoming severe and producing tornadoes". We were going to catch it again, zero doubt.
Incredibly, we would be going through this same again only three weeks later on Christmas Eve, 1982. While much of the state was huddled in for another terrifying night, I was at the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock reading weather warnings over the air. The weather service was issuing so many tornado warnings so quickly, the teletype printers in newsrooms were backlogged by at least ten minutes. The only way to warn the public quickly was for us to read the warnings live from the forecast office as they were issued. A lot of people all over Arkansas were scared and the three Little Rock television stations were their lifeline that night.
Today, in our home north of Kansas City (and right across the river from Kansas, an even more legendary tornado state) we are far enough north to get either tornadoes or an ice storm or heavy snow when an unseasonably warm weather system goes through. Sometimes we will get both, one right after the other; sometimes there is thunder and lightning during an ice storm. In 1990 I wrote about the Hesston, Kansas tornado that occurred on March 13 after several days of 70-degree weather, a mile-wide storm that was one of the most powerful ever recorded.
A few years ago, a workmate of mine who is from Russia purchased a home in the southwestern corner of the Kansas City metro area, on the Kansas side. He and his wife were a bit perplexed and at a total loss about what to do when the tornado sirens went off one spring evening. "When the sirens go off, that means there's a bad storm coming and you should head for the basement," one of my other colleagues explained. "Who the hell told you that?", I said. "When the tornado sirens go off, it means you grab your lawn chairs, go outside and watch the storm come in!"
Newbies. Some people just don't get it.