Fort Smith Tornado of Apr. 21, 1996 information, photos, and articles

Below is information, photos, and articles about the tornado that hit Fort Smith and Van Buren, Arkansas. I was raised in Fort Smith.

F3 / 158-206 m.p.h. / Severe. Removes roofs, walls from well-constructed 
homes; overturns trains.
The year's most destructive tornado struck Fort Smith, Arkansas, late in 
the evening of April 21. The F3 tornado killed three people, injured 89 
others, and resulted in $300 million damage. The damage total was one of 
the highest on record for any tornado. 

The tornado was spawned by a supercell thunderstorm crossing 
southeastern Oklahoma. It touched down at 11:12 pm in Moffett, Oklahoma, 
and quickly crossed the Arkansas River into Arkansas. It moved through
Fort Smith, and then through Van Buren in extreme southwestern Crawford 
County. In Van Buren, Dewey Daniel and his son took cover in a hall 
closet of their home as the tornado approached. While inside, they 
heard an explosion that turned out to be the garage shattering. "We 
were calling out the name of Jesus because there was no other name to 
call," Daniel said. "It's hard to say what you felt. It's just 
indescribable." The tornado lifted one mile south of Rudy, at 
11:28 pm. 

Two young children were killed in Fort Smith. Forty people were injured 
in Sebastian County, while another 49 were injured in Crawford County. 
Thirty-five homes were destroyed in Sebastian County, and another 120 
sustained major damage. In Crawford County, 463 homes were destroyed, 
and 500 others heavily damaged. The tornado was on the ground for ten 
miles, reaching a maximum width of more than 0.5 mile between Fort 
Smith and Van Buren. 

Houses splintered by a tornado in the Mount Vista area of Van Buren show the intensity of the storm that passed through Sunday night. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Photo --Rick McFarland)

The Eads Brothers Furniture Co., which sustained minor damage in the tornado that ravaged Fort Smith on Sunday night, burns Wednesday afternoon. It was unknown what caused the fire at the four-story building at 414 Garrison Ave. The fire also destroyed three businesses next to the furniture store. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Terri Hawkins talks on the telephone Thursday in what is left of her garage at 1704 North Hills Blvd. in Van Buren. Hawkins and her husband, Russell, were waiting for a State Farm insurance adjuster to visit their home, which was damaged by a tornado Sunday night. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Photo- David Gottschalk)

Tornado leaves fatal trail of terror (The Ann Arbor News)
Fort Smith Tornado (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
Tornadoes / The Most Ferocious Storm (As the residents of Fort Smith, Ark., try to understand why their town stood in the path of the whirlwind on April 22, scientists...)
Fort Smith, AR Tornado 1996
Earl Green's / The April 21st Fort Smith Tornado Journal (Earl Green gives a good on the scene report and includes good photos of the damage done by the tornado.)
CNN - Arkansas storms leave mounds of debris - April 23, 1996
Historic site to reopen Saturday (Northwest Arkansas Times, May 2, 1996)
   Times Staff
   The Fort Smith National Historic Site will reopen its doors Saturday,
May 4, at 10:30 a.m. The site has been closed since April 20 because of 
the damage sustained in the tornado that ripped through the area the day 
   The courthouse/jail-wing building and the commissary building sustained 
significant damage to their roof structures, and officials estimate repairs 
to those buildings will cost $300,000.
   The majority of the damage occurred at Belle Point, where 240 of the
500 trees were destroyed.
   This part of the site will remain closed until late next week.
   A National Park Service preservation crew has worked daily to assess
the damage, protect the buildings, and determine the extent of the repair 
   Regular park hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. will resume Sunday. 
Here is a message concerning the tornado from someone that I know in 
Fort Smith. --
Hi, Jay,......good to hear from you----I was scared
Sunday night because the atmosphere was so different
very still and different colors in the sky----but our
sirens did not go off---lots of controversy over that
as our warning system comes from Tulsa..
I know several people who have lost their homes-----
just so sad-----some friends have lived on Mt. Vista for
30 years and had beautiful homes---now reduced to
splinters.    There were new homes valued at 300,000 and up
left in a heap. We are blessed not to have had anymore
Here is a message concerning the tornado from someone that I know in 
Fayetteville. He use to live in Fort Smith. --
I was down there on Wednesday of this week to speak to the Rotary Club.  
Got there early and toured the areas of destruction.  Never seen a 
tornado path that wide!  Even worse than I imagined.  Judge Parker's 
didn't appear to be damaged, but they are saying it received $250,000 
worth.  Miss Laura's (the old whore house) had the roof torn off.

Don't know if you heard about the subsequent fire?  While I was downtown
Wednesday, a sudden HUGH fire broke out on the south side of Garrison
between Fourth and Fifth Streets.  Eads Brothers Furniture occupied most
of that.  Kelley Realty, the Salvation Army Store, and a feed and vet
supply store were also in that block.  Had the wind been blowing east or
west, rather than north, and I don't see how they would have stopped it
from spreading along the Avenue.
The following comment is from a person in Fayetteville and she use to
live in Fort Smith. --
The weather can't decide what season it is, it goes from hot to cold.  
But the tornado season seems to be here.  I guess you heard about Ft. 
Smith.  Judge Parker's Court had some roof damage, and the Eads Furniture 
Store blew up the next day or two after the storm, apparently a gas line 
ruptured.  The Garrison bridge has been closed. And my sister said the 
Hamburger Bar is gone.  She says that along I-40 in Van Buren, it looked 
like some giant had come through and stepped on all the houses. It's just 
Here is another comment from someone who is in Fort Smith. --
By the way, did you hear about the tornado down here in late April. 
Downtown FS was devastated. Several of the historic old buildings in 
the first 5 blocks were damaged, or destroyed. The old Eads Brothers 
furniture building was damaged, then it burned to the ground a few 
days later.
It's just terrible.
The below is from the June 1996 issue of THE LUTHERAN magazine:
Tornadoes rip central states

A series of tornadoes devastated several central states, including 
eastern Arkansas, southern Illinois and central Kentucky. 

Don Brewer, pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Fort Smith, Ark., 
said a tornado touched down in the business district and along the 
river. "[The tornado] then jumped over the river and hit several nice 
homes, some costing as much as $250,000," Brewer said. "Then it moved 
out and hit about 300 middle-income homes." 

St. Luke, the town's only Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 
congregation, suffered no loss of life, but 15 members had homes that 
were destroyed. 

Brewer is meeting with three Lutheran Church -Missouri Synod pastors 
weekly, checking on each congregation's needs. A group therapy program 
with a Lutheran Social Services speaker is scheduled to help children 
and adults deal with the post-event trauma they may be suffering. 
The following is from the homepage for Van Buren, Ark.
Van Buren's Historic District Escapes Tornado 

Van Buren's beautifully restored Main Street Historic District was
spared when a tornado struck a large residential area of the
community on April 21. Both the Ozark Scenic Railway and the
Frontier Belle Riverboat are operating their normal schedules. All
downtown shops are open for business. One motel suffered major
damage, but still has rooms available. All other lodging facilities
and restaurants are operating normally. If you are led to offer some
assistance to tornado victims, we would suggest making a cash
donation to the Fort Smith Area American Red Cross office or
Salvation Army. Those two organizations have done a magnificent
job of meeting the needs of our citizens. Please E-mail us if you
need more information.
Shortly after the tornado hit Fort Smith and Van Buren I went to the Ann 
Arbor office of the American Red Cross and made a small donation.
I received a letter dated June 5, 1996 and it reads as follows:
Dear Mr. Daves,

Thank you so much for your gift of $2.)) to the American Red Cross Washtenaw
County to benefit the Fort Smith, Arkansas tornado.

It is because of good friends like you that we are able to continue to provide Red
Cross services for our community. During the past year, your Red Cross:

- provided emergency assistance for 212 local disaster victims

- taught critical lifesaving skills to over 60,000 people in Washtenaw County.

- supplied over 95,000 units of blood and blood products to local hospitals

In addition to these activities, the local Red Cross continues to meet the changing
needs of our community.

Thank you again for your important gift that has touched so many lives, and made
our work possible. Help Can't Wait!

John Nordlinger
Executive Director
Fort Smith, Van Buren bounce back from 1996 twister

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

fort smith -- A year ago today, a powerful tornado tore through Fort Smith and
Van Buren with no warning, killing two children and destroying hundreds of
  Since then, residents have done much to put shredded neighborhoods and
business districts back together. It could be a lesson for the hundreds of people
who lost homes in this year's March 1 tornadoes, which tore a diagonal swath
across the state from Arkadelphia to Marmaduke and killed 25 people.
  The April 21, 1996, twister touched down on Fort Smith's west side at 11:10
p.m., smashed part of downtown and damaged or destroyed hundreds of
north-side homes before crossing the Arkansas River into Van Buren.
  Many Fort Smith residents were unaware of the danger until it was on them.
The tornado sirens in Fort Smith never sounded that night because forecasters at
the National Weather Service office in Tulsa misread some signs of the coming
tornado and ignored others, and failed to warn officials in time.
  In part because of the lack of warning, the National Weather Service last
month erected a state-of-the-art Doppler radar station just south of the city.
  The tornado killed 2-year-old Angelica Marie Fleming and 5-year-old Kyle
Johnson of Fort Smith. Both died when trees crushed their homes. The two
children lived less than three blocks apart. About 90 people from Fort Smith and
Van Buren were treated for injuries at local hospitals.
  After the tornado crossed the Arkansas River, it ripped through an upscale
residential neighborhood in Van Buren, destroying homes and injuring
  The storm system continued northeast from Sebastian and Crawford counties
where tornadoes damaged parts of Franklin, Washington, Marion and Madison
  In rural Madison County, another tornado killed Tim Lackey, listed in his late
20s, and his 10-year-old son Jessie as they huddled in a mobile home near
Fleming Creek.
  The storm caused an estimated $300 million in damage in the six counties. In
Van Buren, the twister destroyed 435 homes and 60 apartments, according to
American Red Cross statistics. Another 660 homes were damaged. Fewer than
10 businesses were damaged.
  In Fort Smith, according to the Red Cross, the tornado destroyed 157 homes
and 12 apartments and damaged 1,350 homes. Businesses didn't get off so
lightly in Fort Smith: the tornado damaged or destroyed about 100 of them.
  Residents in Fort Smith and Van Buren wasted little time grieving over their
losses. They immediately began to clean up and rebuild as volunteers and
disaster relief organizations poured into the area. By the end of 1996, residents
and business operators had replaced or repaired more than $28 million worth of
homes and businesses.
  The six counties affected by the storm received $5.4 million in disaster aid
from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Small Business
Administration made $9.5 million in loans to residents affected by the tornadoes.
Of the total, $2.7 million in loans were made to 65 businesses, most of which
were in Fort Smith.
  In Fort Smith, the tornado has renewed efforts to revitalize the downtown
area, develop riverfront property on the northwest side and provide hundreds of
new homes on the north side to replace those destroyed by the tornado.
  "The tornado was the catalyst for all major civic leaders to come together and
say let's do something,'' Fort Smith City Administrator Strib Boynton said.
  The state Legislature subsequently appropriated $9.5 million for expansion of
the Fort Smith Civic Center, a key to the downtown revitalization project.
  And Boynton said nursing home giant Beverly Enterprises, headquartered in
Fort Smith, is on the verge of agreeing to invest $20 million to move into a
proposed three-square-block corporate campus at the west end of downtown.
  As part of the agreement, Boynton said, the city would spend $2 million to
upgrade water and sewer services and streets for the corporate campus. He also
said he plans to ask Fort Smith city directors Tuesday to consider building an
800-space parking garage near the proposed campus.
  Boynton said voters will be asked this year to approve a temporary sales tax
to generate the matching funds for the $9.5 million state government
  Preliminary plans for development of the riverfront will be presented to the
public April 30, Boynton said. As part of the project, the city has obtained 6.1
miles of riverfront land from the Rice-Cardin company for public use
development. The city also is negotiating with the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers on a long-term lease for the engineers' 45-acre Fort Smith Park on the
river at the city's northern boundary. Except for a couple of isolated parcels, he
said, the acquisitions would give the city control over all the riverfront property
from Harry E. Kelley Park near downtown to Fort Smith Park.
  Boynton said the city plans to go ahead with a program to build 300 new
homes in north Fort Smith that were damaged or destroyed, despite rejection of a
$4 million grant application by the federal Department of Housing and Urban
Development. The grant would have provided seed money for the program. 
  As an alternative, Boynton said, local builders have proposed a program that
would provide $3,000 in assistance for first-time home buyers with lower to
middle incomes.
  Van Buren Mayor John Riggs said Friday he believed Van Buren has met
most of the challenges presented by the tornado. He estimated the city's recovery
was 85 to 90 percent complete. 
  The bulk of the job remaining, he said, is encouraging those residents who
have not rebuilt or repaired their homes to get to work. Another chore is to repair
streets damaged by heavy trucks removing debris or delivering building
materials to the affected neighborhoods.
  Riggs praised the citizens of Van Buren for banding together to clean up. He
said he wasn't surprised, though, as he pointed out the city was designated for
an Arkansas Volunteer Community of the Year award for seven of the last 10
  He said 57 groups and 13,500 volunteers invested 63,876 hours in tornado
cleanup efforts in Van Buren.

- Picking Up the Pieces (a look at what happened that night five years ago and how the area slowly began to pull itself back together.) from the SOUTHWEST TIMES RECORD
- Picking Up the Pieces (continued)
Fort Smith: '96 twister, downtown restoration intertwined (ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE, Monday, April 23, 2001)

Return to Link Page (Part 2)