Schools remained closed Tuesday in two towns north of Little Rock devastated by a tornado on Sunday that killed 16 people. Severe weather in the area also took the lives of about a dozen more in Mississippi, Tennesssee and Alabama.
Mike Simmons, the senior transportation manager at the Arkansas Department of Education, said Vilonia School District received the brunt of the storm as 10 people there were killed. The area suffered through another major tornado just three years ago.
"It's part of our weather pattern, and spring's always the worst," Simmons told STN. "There's a path that runs between Little Rock and Conway, and we call it Tornado Alley. When you live there, you know it's part of life. But it's tough. It's absolutely devastating what a tornado can do."
The Vilonia district said in a statement posted on its website that classes were again suspended Tuesday. Simmons added that a new multimillion-dollar middle school that had just been built was leveled.
"They hadn't even taken ownership yet," he said. "Everything in town is pretty well gone."
About 10 miles away, three people were killed in Mayflower, Ark. The school district said in a statement that the town's one elementary school suffered "very minor damage" and that buildings were left without water or electricity. Simmons said the area is calling for portable toilets as existing services have been rendered useless.
"There are so many things you don't think about," Simmons noted.
The town of Mayflower passed a sales tax to construct a so-called safe house that provided shelter to about 50 or 60 people during Sunday's twister, he added.
As far as training for tornado response, he said schools perform drills for students and faculty inside buildings, but there is little that can be done for school buses on the road.
"We used to teach them to get under an overpass, but now they say 'don't do that,'" he explained. "The best thing to do is to keep [students] at school if you think it's going to happen."
The National Weather Service, FEMA and the American Red Cross all recommend driving at right angles away from the tornado, if possible, when caught in a vehicle. If you cannot continue driving, the next suggested response is to leave the vehicle immediately and seek shelter in a building or, if outside, in a low-lying area such as a ditch.
Simmons also said Arkansas Technical University offers one of the nation's few emergency management degrees, and he has considered working with the department to devleop a project "to figure out what to do."
In Alabama, the Bessemer City Schools bus garage was damaged by what appeared to be a direct hit from a tornado, said Brad Holley, the transportation program administrator for the state Department of Education. A special needs bus was also damaged when part of a wall fell on it (see photo, above), but there were no injuries. However, there were a couple of deaths Monday reported in Limestone County as a mother and son were killed in their trailer home.
Holley added that many school systems were closing early Tuesday because the next round of tornados was expected. Alabama Department of Education staff in the field, such as bus inspectors, were also on alert.