Clinton visits his tornado-torn state Familiar Ark. places are now just rubble

among dead, a friend

March 05, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLLEGE STATION, Ark. -- As President Clinton arrived yesterday in this small, struggling suburb of Little Rock, residents tried to make sense of the Salvador Dali picture their neighborhood had become since a killer twister ripped through last weekend.

Pieces of roofing were scattered in trees like ornaments. Homes, if they were standing at all, looked like giant dollhouses with walls missing and private lives exposed. Cars were perched atop trees that had snapped like wishbones.

In this town alone, four people were killed. Almost everyone here knew someone who died -- including Clinton, who made an emotional homecoming yesterday, surveying the vast damage in his native state and comforting people he called by their first names.

Since becoming president, Clinton, who appears at his best in the role of consoler in chief, has traveled to numerous disaster sites, offering prayers, hugs and words of support to strangers with whom he has tried to empathize.

He has seen floods in the Midwest, hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in California, he said after walking through the leveled downtown business district of Arkadelphia, a college town 60 miles southwest of Little Rock that he has visited for 40 years.

"But nothing has quite affected me the way this has today," he said. "I look into the eyes of so many people here today, and I wish there were more I could say or do."

On a day so sunny and clear it belied the raging black clouds that ripped through the state Saturday, Clinton, dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a denim shirt, took in the devastating sights of his home state by air and by foot.

The storm tore through eight states over the weekend. But nowhere did it leave as many crumbled homes, downed trees or mangled lives in its wake as in Arkansas.

In the president's home state, where twisters cut a vicious 260-mile diagonal swath through the midsection, 25 people died -- nearly as many as were killed by tornadoes during Clinton's entire 12 years here as governor.

Along with Gov. Mike Huckabee; James Lee Witt, a fellow Arkansan who is director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; Arkansas lawmakers; and several of his White House advisers who hail from the state, Clinton started his day here with a helicopter tour of the damage.

His faced pressed against the helicopter's window, he pointed out landmarks he knew and reminisced about days spent in old towns that now looked like huge junkyards strewn with shards of wood and glass.

"Oh, god," Clinton said as he flew over Arkadelphia, a cotton gin and steamboat center of the 1800s, where the clock was blown off the courthouse tower. He recalled being there often as a child. The Trailways bus he rode from Hot Springs to his grandparents' home in Hope would stop and he would get off for a Coke.

"I have spent a huge amount of my life in this little community that was blown away," he lamented.

On the ground in Arkadelphia, Clinton met business owners in tears, like Karen Kirkpatrick, 51, whose engine repair shop was now a pile of debris.

"Don't worry," Clinton told her, standing near a car flipped on its side, "we're going to go forward."

He pledged to provide federal assistance that would ensure the rebuilding of the town within two years and create a long-term task force of government departments to help in the recovery.

Later, Clinton walked through College Station, a poor, largely African-American community where, as governor, he often visited churches, helped build a community center, and where residents recalled how Chelsea Clinton used to tumble around on the playground.

"This is where he got his start before he became governor," said Sandra Adams, a dietitian at the local nursing home whose house suffered only minimal damage. "When we asked for lights for our ball field, he said, 'Missy, you'll get them.' And we did."

Victor Eackles stood before a mass of crumbled walls and cinder blocks that had been his soon-to-open restaurant, thankful he was alive, and thankful the president had come to see the damage.

"It's part of the healing process," said Eackles, 38. "If the president thinks about this community that much to come out and visit it, I don't know how to express it. It's reassuring we will be taken care of."

His brother, Kenneth Eackles, 41, had an injured leg from being buried under the collapsed building. "I think the leg will heal before the memories of what happened," he told Clinton.

A crowd gathered to see the president, some standing on cars, mounds of rubble and downed utility poles. He gave former neighbors long, emotional hugs, patted the hand of a woman whose husband was killed in the tornado and stopped at Graham's Temple Church of God and Christ to talk to Bishop L. T. Walker Sr. "I miss you, Bishop," he said.

Among others killed here was L. B. Porter, 62, the uncle of a former aide to Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, and a man whom Clinton said he knew.

Ten-year-old Jeri D. King, whose aunt was killed when her trailer home collapsed, had a message for Clinton from her hospital bed, where she was recovering from a broken neck: "Try to get everybody a safe place to go when the storm comes."

In addition to federal aid pledged for Arkansas, Clinton offered financial relief to Ohio and Kentucky, which suffered extensive flood damage, and said Witt would travel to those states today with Vice President Al Gore.

Although he said yesterday's visit was "tough" for him, Clinton said he was heartened by "person after person after person" with whom he met who told him:

"We'll get over this -- this is Arkansas. We know how to behave. We know what to do."

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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