VILONIA — A week ago, Brenda Norton of Shreveport, La., loaded up her truck with work clothes and a mattress and headed to Vilonia to help with tornado relief efforts.
There were a lot of unknowns. She didn’t know the extent of the damage, what she would be doing or how long she would be staying. All she knew was that she had a desire to help. Arriving at the Vilonia Fire Department, the pieces of the puzzle fell in place, she said.
"I knew I was where I was supposed to be," Norton said Tuesday morning as she was heading out for the day. "The fire department adopted me. They put me up here in the station, and they put me to work."
She would be going back to a house belonging to Barbara Bullion Ballard, where she had been working at on and off since she arrived. Her job was to help with cleaning up the glass and debris on the inside. Dressed in jeans, a khaki shirt and a ball cap, she planned to spend Tuesday taking care of the outside. Limbs needed piling and she also said she was determined to climb on the roof and secure tarps.
"I’ve always been a get-your-hands-dirty type of person," she said.
A retired occupational therapist, Norton said she has experience organizing and responding to disasters. She helped with emergency response efforts after Hurricane Katrina and also helped in Mena following a tornado. However, this is the first time she has gone alone. Generally, she travels with a church group.
"I was following Vilonia on the Internet, and I knew when the time was right, I was going," she said.
She talked briefly about an influx of volunteers shortly after a disaster and how they tend to dwindle as time goes on. Norton plans to go home for the weekend and return on Monday. She’s not sure how long she will stay when she returns.
"A lot of people have picked up stakes and moved on," she said. "There are people here who still need a lot of help. Mrs. Ballard still needs me."
Ballard agreed. She believes that Norton was a "Godsend." Both women said they have formed a lasting bond.
Ballard and her little dog Daisy rode the tornado out lying on the floor beside the bed. Neither were hurt. The house sustained heavy roof damage, her windows were shattered, and a couple of outbuildings were demolished.
"I kept waiting for the freight train sound," Ballard said. "All I could hear was the sound of breaking glass and the ripping of metal and screws. There was a pressure inside that you wouldn’t believe. It got quiet once and it was like it hit again. Really, it was like two (tornadoes) hit."
Afterward, Ballard tells of sitting in the dark for a short time to gather her wits. It dawned on her to get her flashlight, she said, and to begin blinking SOS. A neighbor, she said, responded. He notified the fire department and they were on scene quickly, she said.
"The firefighters, police and volunteers could not have done a better job," she added.
Since, she said, she has been receiving a lot of much needed help. In the immediate days following the April 25, tornado, she said, she experienced incidents of "shaking inside."
"I couldn’t make any decisions for a while," she said, adding she received some helpful advice and she has been following through with success. "Rather than to look at the whole picture of everything I have to do," she said. "I have been picking one project per day and knocking it out. That advice helped me more than anything."
For now, Ballard plans to take it "one day at a time," while staying in a loaned Class-A motorhome, parked in her yard while the work continues on her house. Vilonia is home. Her great-grandfather settled in the area, she said, just before the Civil War. On that note, she shares that she used to be an employee of the Log Cabin Democrat back in the 1950s.
In 1953, she moved to Michigan and lived there for about 22 years. She moved back to the area in 1974, following a divorce, to help her aging parents. She remarried in 1975 to Raymond Ballard, who died six weeks prior to April’s tornado.
"This is bad," she said. "But it’s nothing like a death. It doesn’t compare to the death of my husband."
She and her husband built the house from scratch. He was a woodworker, and the house is full of his carvings as well as many unique pieces of art and antiques that were not damaged as a result of the tornado. An auction is planned for Memorial Day, she said, where she will offer up many items including tools, garden wagons, farm equipment and many more items.