Vilonia marks year since tornado, looks forward to new town square
A year ago, one of the worst tornadoes to ever hit the state pounded its way through Mayflower and Vilonia.
Monday marks the one year anniversary of the deadly tornado that hit Vilonia and Mayflower in April 2014.
For Vilonia, it was the second tornado to hit in three years.This second tornado, the one that hit April 27, 2014, was a beast. Eventually rated an EF4 at its strongest, there are still rumblings of protest from those who say there was evidence enough to put it a step above, as an EF5. Officially, only one EF5 has ever been documented in Arkansas.
Regardless of its rating, the damage and the number of people killed speak for itself. Eight died in Vilonia and 16 total died from the tornado, which also cost millions in damage.
The tornado that hit in 2011 was rated and EF2. Four people were killed and damage was in the millions. It's rare for a town to get hit so hard twice in such a short time. Moore, Oklahoma, is the only other town that comes to mind. So, for a town like this to come back is no small feat.
Vilonia Mayor James Firestone said 55 homes were destroyed in the hardest-hit neighborhood. Of those lots, 47 remain vacant. All that's left are the concrete slabs. Piles of debris can still be found throughout the town. Uprooted trees dot the landscape between vacant lots, with for-sale signs out front. The signs of devastation are everywhere.
However, there are signs of life too. Besides the eight homes that have been rebuilt in the hardest-hit neighborhood of Vilonia, homes and businesses elsewhere continue to come back.
Throughout the town you will see new buildings with "Open" signs out front. A new playground was just added to the city park.
Now comes talk of something much bigger. On the anniversary of the tornado, Firestone invited residents to the high school cafeteria to remember the eight people who were lost in Vilonia. The crowd of nearly 100 watched as pictures of the eight Vilonia victims were projected onto a large white board.
Two of those victims were brothers, 8 and 7 years old. They might have one day gone to high school and eaten lunch in the very cafeteria their memorial was taking place in.
The night's big announcement is called Vilonia 2030. The idea is to not just continue rebuilding Vilonia. Firestone said he wants to add on. He wants Vilonia to have something it’s never had before – a town square, by the year 2030.
Vilonia is not too different from other small towns, with a stretch of businesses all clustered together on "Main Street". Firestone said the town’s population grew by 80 percent during the 20 years before the tornadoes.
"It's because we have such great schools," Firestone said. The nearby Air Force base might also contribute.
Firestone said the town was still growing until the last tornado and he wants that growth to continue. A new town square could be just the trick, he said.
New roads, restaurants, retail stores and a staging area for the town's farmers market would need to be built atop what is now just a grassy field on the west side of town. Even with government funds, it's an expensive project.
On Monday night, even the hope of something so grand was enough to get residents excited as they crowded around renderings of the new town square.
"We'll build the structures stronger, more resistant to the winds. But, this is home and there's no way they’re going to run us off," Firestone said.
The City Council unanimously passed the Vilonia 2030 project, Monday night.