April 21st, 1996 will be a night I’m sure that many in the River Valley will not forget. A deadly F3 twister tore through downtown Ft. Smith in the middle of the night. Many were in bed, and unsuspecting as the storms inched closer and closer.
At 11:12 PM CDT the tornado touched down near the intersection of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers on the Oklahoma side. It then started to tear what would end up being a 10 miles wide path of destruction through the River Valley.
The twister entered the downtown historic district of Ft. Smith around 11:18 PM CDT heavily damaging and destroying many buildings. As the tornado continued to move NE, it would then strike the industrial and residential areas of the city with deadly consequences. It was in the residential area that the vortex would claim 2 young children. A 2-year-old girl and a 5-year-old-boy were unfortunately killed after their homes were demolished.
The tornado did not stop there, it crossed the Arkansas River a second time, and climbed a bluff before it descended into the west side of Van Buren. Many homes and buildings in Van Buren were either heavily damaged or completely destroyed. The path of destruction would end after the twister lifted once it crossed Highway 59.
What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate.
This event drew the attention of the U.S. Dept of Commerce to create a Natural Disaster Survey Report on this event. Why? There was a tremendous breakdown of communication caused primarily by the tornado.
Shortly after touchdown, the tornado took out a high voltage transmission line along the Arkansas River. This knocked out power to the west and north side of Ft. Smith. The power outage affected the communication between the Tulsa National Weather Service and the Ft. Smith Police Dept as well as communication with the rest of the city officials including the emergency managers. The outage also led to a failure of the Arkansas LETS system. This system was the backup way to receive warnings from the NWS.
Due to the lack of communication caused by the power outage, the city officials decided to NOT sound the Civil Defense sirens. Thus, the tornado struck the city of Ft. Smith seemingly without verbal warning.
While 2 deaths are two too many, thankfully there weren’t more. With the breakdown of information, there could have been many many more. Thankfully local radio station KISR-FM DJ Fred Baker made sure to warn people about the danger leading to many lives being saved. Even the local TV station in the River Valley was knocked off air by the power outage.
What Do We Take Away From This Event?
Due to the serious radar gap in our area, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Ronald H. Brown, sent a report to Congress to approve the installation of a WSR-88D in Ft. Smith.
The Tulsa radar, KINX is just too far away to provide any low level scans of supercells. The low levels is of course where the storms need to be monitored for strong rotation that could be transferred to the ground.
The other thing we can learn from this event is to have multiple ways to receive warnings. In addition to your cell phone, you can receive warnings from a NOAA weather radio. This runs off of a different alert system, and would have been unaffected by the loss of power from the tornado. Weather radios receive emergency broadcast signals from transmitters owned and operated by NOAA.
Here are just a few ways you can receive watches and warnings for Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley.
It is recommended to have at least 3 ways to receive weather alerts.