JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - The official forecast for May 15, 1968 mentioned severe thunderstorms including hail and wind. No threat of tornadoes was included.
Late in the evening, most of Jonesboro is in bed. Little do those sleepy residents know that a tornado just ripped through Tuckerman. It has strengthened and is headed for Jonesboro—with no warning.
The tornado, now as wide as two football fields, strikes Valley View near old Highway 39—now Highway 49--destroying 6 homes. Moving east-northeast the twister crosses US 63, onto Stadium Boulevard, and demolishes the Fairview neighborhood with 200+ mile per hour winds.
David Dudley, an 8-year-old boy at the time, remembers that night well. "He got us into the living room and piled on top of us. And I can remember looking up, he was on top of us. I saw the T.V. go across the room. The house was vibrating so bad the phone was ringing, if you can believe that."
Nettleton Schools take a direct hit.
Nettleton Superintendent, James Dunivan describes the district's devastation. "It did a lot of damage in Jonesboro and also to the Nettleton School District. We lost several buildings, had to do a lot of rebuilding…had a lot of school for some period of time after that even in portable buildings."
The storm continued east to Needham, lifting, before touching down again in downtown Manila, impacting about three of that city's blocks.
Several tornadoes hit Arkansas on May 15, 1968. We found a radio report from KAAY, a now defunct radio station, from May 16.
Announcer George G, Jennings relays the devastation to listeners in Little Rock and across the rest of the state. "The figure now reads 48 dead in the total of tornadoes that struck Arkansas last night. It started about 7 o'clock and was over by midnight." Thirty-four of those 48 died in Jonesboro.
Andy Morris, a reporter from the Jonesboro Sun, revealed in a 1968 report that "hundreds of persons have been injured and sent to St. Bernards. Auxiliary hospitals have been set up at the ASU hangar and also at the Armory. The 875th National Guard has been called out."
Officials estimated $8 million in damage—that's in 1968 dollars. Today, that estimate would hit closer to at least $52 million.
With 164 homes destroyed in Jonesboro, areas of town were made unrecognizable. Cars were wrapped around trees. Today, thousands of homes and dozens of businesses are in that same path.
Places like Dunwoody Huntcliff Estates, The Links Apartments, and Central Baptist Church would have been struck. NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital did not exist in 1968, but now it would suffer from damage and debris.
"That's one of the first things we look at. What kind of damage do we have? Make sure we have a clear path to the Emergency Room," says Mark Ward, Plant Operations Manager. He also tells us the hospital has a disaster plan that goes into action with any warning issued for Craighead County, readying staff and patients alike.
If the same type of storm hits, storm debris will cover roads and knock out power and cell phone service to much of the city, if not the county. In 1968, phones and some radio communications were jammed.
George Jennings states in the morning after radio report from KAAY "there is extreme difficulty getting through to Jonesboro by telephone." You can expect that again. It happened in Joplin and Alabama in 2011.
Over the last 44 years, forecasts and technology have improved. Severe weather outlooks are issued days in advance of storm development, with watches and warnings issued during an actual tornadic event.
Ward believes "we have made great strides in Tornado safety since then, since 1968."
While officials and residents can expect to be overwhelmed in the aftermath of such a catastrophe, drills and disaster plans are in place and in practice.
Ward says that is one of the most practiced drills in the hospital. "With the Joplin incident, you know, it just seem like there's been so many tornadoes in the last couple years, we felt we needed to refresh ourselves on this."
Safety all boils down to you and your preparation. Nettleton Schools were decimated and rebuilt, but now they are ready.
"Our students know we've had drills, they know to go to the hall and find something to cover their head. They've drilled. They know exactly what to do. We have four tornado drills a year," says Nettleton Intermediate Principal Debbie Bean.
In 1968, hundreds were injured and 34 people died on May 15. If that same tornado were to hit Jonesboro in 2012, casualties may hit the thousands.
The hospital in its current location would be damaged, maybe even incapacitated by this path.
Ward thinks, "You're not used to that. You're used to staying there and riding out the storm and serving the people you need to serve. I think that decision would be tough, but it could happen to anybody. And, you know, you just have to do your best and hope for the best."