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Were Vilonia Homes Built Strong Enough?

Could more have been done to prevent the immense amount of damage and loss of life the April 27 tornado caused so many?
FAULKNER COUNTY, AR - It's been nearly three months and coming back to her old neighborhood is still difficult for Jennifer Champion.

"You gotta count the driveways to know which one was yours," she said, walking in between bare slabs of concrete.

The home where she lived with her fours kids was wiped away -- nearly all of their possessions gone. Thanks to a neighbors storm cellar they all survived.

The Champion's Vilonia neighborhood took a direct hit from an EF-4 tornado and it's 200 mph winds. Most experts agree it's not realistic to build homes able survive that kind of force, but some argue improved building techniques would decrease the overall damage.

Carl Rossini is the Fire Chief and Code Enforcer in Mayflower, another city hit hard by the April 27th tornado.

As people here begin to rebuild, he's making sure mistakes of the past aren't repeated.

"Your exterior walls, which are your load walls, are the ones that you want the anchor bolts in," Rossini said, pointing to the walls of a home being reconstructed in the River Plantation neighborhood.

Anchor bolts secure the wall to the foundation. In the rubble of the April 27th tornado, surveyors found them absent in as high as 90 percent of destroyed homes.

Rossini showed us several homes in River Plantation built without anchor bolts. He says its a violation of state building code.

It was a similar story about 12 miles northeast in Vilonia where we found home after home in Parkwood Meadows built without anchor bolts.

"You must tie the building to the foundation and the roof to the building walls," said Butch Grimes, an architect who headed up a team that surveyed the aftermath of an EF-4 tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama in April 2011.

He concluded that damage, even in EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes, could be decreased with better building.

"If you can hold those things together, assuming the windows and doors don't blow out, you've got a much better chance of surviving," Grimes said.

Just as important as anchor bolts, Grimes says, are so called "hurricane straps" securing the roof to the load walls.

After an EF-5 tornado killed 24 people in May 2013, the city council in Moore, Oklahoma voted to strengthen residential building codes.

So far there has been no such push in Arkansas.

"When you start changing your codes and require more you're going to increase the cost of the houses," said Vilonia mayor James Firestone. "I think at this point that may be better left up to the home owner the builder."

Asked if companies should be held accountable for building homes that violated state code and were then destroyed in the tornado, Firestone said "it's a tough question."

Experts say going after builders could be difficult because the statue of limitations only holds them liable for one year after construction.

Despite all the destruction to her family and neighborhood, Jennifer Champion is not among those clamoring for tighter regulations.

"I don't know that with what came through here those bolts and straps and nuts and screws would have changed a lot," she said.

She says a storm room or storm shelter is a must in the family's new house, but when natures wrath is unleashed, she says, it's God that's in control.

"At the end of the day you're gonna have left whatever He intends for you to have left."

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