“Please, please be okay:” Experiencing the Little Rock tornado from afar
April 13, 2023
On the last day of March in 2023, large sections of the southern and midwestern United States experienced a massive stream of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes that left hundreds injured and hundreds more filled with anxiety. I thought I would be saved by this anxiety since Carbondale wasn’t in the direct line of the tornadoes to come rampaging through, but I was sorely mistaken, as I received a text around 2:30 p.m. on March 31st that Little Rock had been hit.
I grew up in Little Rock and, while I may not have any friends there anymore, my parents and the family cat still live on the western side of the city. A high-end EF3 tornado dropped down and began tearing its way through downtown and eventually into West Little Rock, right where my old house resides. My old house and my family could’ve been swept away into the swirling winds, and I would be none the wiser until much later had it not been for that text.
Panic rushed through my veins as I shakily picked up my phone to call my dad, knowing he would be the more likely of the two to answer the phone due to his job position, but my heart dropped to my stomach as the phone call went to voicemail. A shiver ran down my spine as the sullen beep from the voicemail rang through my ears.
“Please, please be okay,” I whispered into the phone, my vision beginning to spin as I pressed the end button. Five minutes had stretched into what felt like five hours at the time. I hadn’t realized how panicked I had become until my own cat began to nuzzle up next to me, head butting my chest and curling into my lap despite being perfectly comfortable atop his small cat perch. He always does this when my anxiety begins to peak, and at that moment, I couldn’t control the shaking from my hands as I desperately scrolled through my contacts to try calling my mom.
“We’re okay Angel, we’re okay,” my mother said as soon as she picked up the phone, immediately knowing why I was calling at such an unusual time. The sigh of relief that exited my lungs was nothing I had ever experienced before, a completely foreign feeling that enveloped me instantly. “We’re okay, we’re okay, we’re okay,” repeated over and over in my head as she began to inform me that she was taking shelter in a vault at work, and my father had made it home safe to a house intact with the family cat shakily meowing at his side. Not all calls were going through because of the tornado wreaking havoc on the connections around town, so I understood why his call went unanswered.
I remained on the phone with them off and on all afternoon to make sure everything stayed ok so as to quell the anxiety that was still at the back of my mind. My family was safe. Everything is okay.
Several of my classmates and colleagues experienced this same panic as the tornadoes barreled through the Midwest, potentially endangering their families and hometowns. Fortunately, all those I was in contact with were met with relief rather than grief as one by one, their families began to reassure them that their home was still okay.
A few days later, my parents were able to safely make it back to work and see the damage Little Rock had suffered from just a few short minutes of violent winds. A shopping center that was frequented by many was destroyed, and several neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. The Baskin Robbins I used to go to as a kid, which was less than five minutes away from my old house, had the front of its store ripped off. If the tornado had been moved just two streets over, my old neighborhood would be gone.
The apartments my mother used to manage when she was younger, which was Ginny’s Vineyard during her time working there, had the tops ripped off and several higher-story apartments caved in. The old building I took extracurricular classes in as a kid had its back wiped clean off. The Purple Cow restaurant I always got a plate of mac and cheese from was missing a roof and blown-out windows. The trail I used to walk along all the time with my parents was impassable. Parts of my childhood were wiped off the map and remain but a memory now, living at the back of our collective minds.
“It looks like a bomb went off,” my mother said as she showed me the damage taken to areas close to home. “We were really lucky, I still can’t believe just how lucky we really were.”
My father said, after driving through Little Rock, “From the damage, you can tell there were two tornadoes near us.”
Portions of west Little Rock are unrecognizable now due to the storm, and so many of the passing memories throughout this side of town haven’t stopped replaying in my head. Little Rock was changed drastically, and I am five hours away, unable to help out what was once my home.
Experiencing this panic so far away yet simultaneously so close was an ordeal that I still have little words to truly explain just how strange a feeling this is. One thing I can say is I wasn’t aware just how much I still loved my hometown until seeing it in ruins, seeing my childhood become distorted in my mind by broken trees and scattered remains of old buildings. The city of Little Rock and the state of my mind were one in the same for a while, but as the time passes, the buildings and homes of others are beginning to repair, just the same as the memories in my mind begin to take their shape once more.
Staff reporter and photographer Mo Collar can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram @m0.alexander.