Mall at Turtle Creek employees reflect on tornado; city talks progress

Updated: Mar. 28, 2021 at 6:39 PM CDT
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - The Mall at Turtle Creek was one of the most visibly damaged buildings when the March 28, 2020 tornado tore through Jonesboro, and one year later the damage remains.

Former Best Buy employee Damon Wallace was at the mall when the tornado hit last year.

“The devastation whenever I’d be driving down Highland was definitely a big reminder of what I’d been through,” said Wallace.

The mall had closed all interior shops due to the pandemic, but exterior shops like Best Buy were open for business.

Codey Pate was also working at the store when the tornado came through.

“That was the only time that I was thankful for COVID because had it not been, there’s no telling what would have happened,” said Pate.

“I would have never in a million years imagined a tornado coming across the middle of Jonesboro,” said Pate. “Let alone the place that I work at. Let alone the only day that I work.”

Both Pate and Wallace said the store was getting ready to close for the day, around 30 minutes before the tornado hit.

As Wallace was leaving, his manager called him back to take shelter in an interior break room.

“I remember I got about three-quarters of the way to my car when he starts yelling at me get back inside, run,” said Wallace.

“Next thing I know, it’s just going right over the top of us, and it was just insane,” said Pate.

The employees and some customers were all in the break room when the tornado hit.

“Outside of that room, we were in an entire wall had collapsed and most of the ceiling down with it,” said Wallace. “We didn’t hear the wall collapsing, we heard wind.”

The tornado moved from the mall in a matter of minutes, leaving a path of destruction.

From Dillard’s to Target, damage to the building was visible.

“It was a building and then it wasn’t. It was just rubble,” said Pate.

Most of the roof in the center of the mall was torn off, doors and windows visibly busted, and storefronts heavily damaged.

“We were expecting to see some damage, but we were not expecting to go out and see that the store was gone,” said Wallace.

Thankfully, nobody was killed during the storm.

“I remember my first thought being something like how is everyone okay,” said Wallace.

Wallace and Pate said employees waited around 10 minutes before leaving the break room.

They walked around the most heavily damaged parts of the building, leaving through the Best Buy warehouse.

“I can literally still see the layout. I can see how everything was and to come out to just beams being on the ground and water flooding out and different areas of the place just being in absolute chaos it was just, I was speechless,” said Pate.

First responders were on the scene in a matter of minutes, assessing damage and making sure mall employees were safe.

The effects of living through the tornado still linger for Pate and Wallace.

“I literally remember it like it was yesterday and to think that it’s already been a year it just blows my mind,” said Pate. “I had no words at first because that was a place I worked for three years.”

Pate said he’s now found a new job, but the changes in the last year have not been easy to overcome.

“I’m slowly but surely accepting the change and that’s my recommendation to everybody is accept it slowly but surely,” said Pate. “For me, it was I’m alive and I’m breathing and that’s all that matters to me.”

Wallace said one year later, he’s still struggling to find employment, but he’s optimistic.

“I think if you sat through a tornado destroying your workplace and the worst thing that happened that day is you lost your job, I think I got out pretty okay,” said Wallace.

The toll of living through a major storm still plays a part in Wallace’s life.

“It was definitely a bit taxing on my mental health. Tornadoes now feature a lot more in my nightmares,” said Wallace.

Target, Dillard’s, and JC Penneys have all reopened since the tornado, but the Mall at Turtle Creek didn’t start demolition on the middle of the mall until March 15, 2021.

Region 8 News reached out to the general manager, Rick Jackson, multiple times to see if he would talk about the progress with no response.

Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver told Region 8 News the city is making sure the mall communicates with them.

“Not only is it an eyesore, it’s a danger to our community, but also it impedes our ability for economic development and jobs,” said Copenhaver.

Copenhaver came into office after the tornado hit, and at the time little progress had been made.

One of his first acts as mayor was to issue a 30-day notice ordering cleanup to begin.

“That’s the frustrating part, it’s all about having communication. And we should have had open communication way before then,” said Copenhaver.

Copenhaver said the current phase of demolition will clean from the center of the mall out.

“They’re looking at hopefully completing this by mid-June or first part of July,” said Copenhaver. “We can get in operation from the west side, which would be the Target side, past the food court.”

The next phase focuses on damage from the food court down to Dillard’s.

“Their decision would have to be to destroy that or rebuild that,” said Copenhaver.

Copenhaver did a walk-through of the mall before demolition began in March.

He said the internal structure is sound, minus water damage and missing drywall.

“We have already had some of our departments, engineering in there as well and they agreed so mainly it’s just a roof structure damage,” said Copenhaver.

Copenhaver said he hopes to see the mall completely rebuilt, and the city will provide the mall with whatever services they need to get back in operation as soon as possible.

“This is what we need to do, we would like it back at full operation of what it was because of the services it provided,” said Copenhaver.

Both Pate and Wallace say they’re excited about the possibilities rebuilding the mall could provide.

“Even though we did have something, what will we have in the future? And I think Jonesboro’s growing beyond what I ever thought it would be,” said Pate.

“I’m a bit hopeful of the opportunity that the new buildings that will come in their place will bring,” said Wallace. “It might have kept us down for a bit, but it is something that we can build from.”

You can find a list of stores in the mall that have moved locations, announced they will rebuild, or announced they will close by clicking here.

Region 8 News will continue trying to get updates from the Mall at Turtle Creek and give updates as that information is available.

To see other stories featured in KAIT’s special, “The Jonesboro Tornado: One Year Later,” click here.

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