Nearly 75 years ago, an F4 tornado ripped through Drew County killing 27 people near Center Point, a small community 12 miles east of Monticello. It is believed to be the deadliest tornado in Drew County history.

The April 16, 1939 tornado cut a path a quarter of a mile wide and three miles long at Center Point where about 200 people had gathered at a church for an outdoor funeral. Just as the services were concluded, a hailstorm started and many of the mourners took refuge inside the 20-year-old frame building, according to a 1939 newspaper article by the Associated Press.

In his book Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991 — A Chronology and Analysis of Events, Thomas Grazulis, a meteorologist who has written extensively about tornadoes, said 11 mourners were killed at the church and others died on plantations.

But the Center Point tornado was not the deadliest in Southeast Arkansas. Bradley County was the site of two of the most deadly tornadoes in Arkansas history. On January 3, 1949, a late-afternoon storm in Warren killed 55 people and injured more than 250. In one day, the funerals there were so numerous that choirs took turns singing as the coffins rolled down church aisles. Twenty-six years later, on Good Friday, March 28, 1975, seven people died and 62 were injured in Warren when a tornado took the same path as the one in 1949.

Between 1950 and 2013, there were 143 tornadoes causing 20 deaths and 209 injuries in Southeast Arkansas.

In Ashley County, there were 32 tornadoes causing six deaths and 47 injuries. In Bradley County, there were 20 tornadoes causing seven deaths and 59 injuries. In Chicot County, there were 31 tornadoes, causing one death and 41 injuries. In Desha County, there were 23 tornadoes causing 33 injuries and no deaths. In Drew County, there were 17 tornadoes causing one death and four injuries. In Lincoln County, there were 20 tornadoes causing five deaths and 25 injuries.

Many Arkansas cities and counties have outdoor warning sirens to alert the public when tornadoes threaten. While properly maintained outdoor warning sirens may alert the public of severe weather, many have false expectations of them. They are not designed nor intended to alert people indoors.

Prior to the Super Tuesday tornado outbreak on February 5, 2008, six of the previous tornado fatalities in Arkansas occurred when people were indoors sleeping. There were tornado warnings for each of those tornadoes but the people who lost their lives were unaware of the warnings, according to a public information statement from the National Weather Service in Little Rock.

Who, exactly, is responsible for personal safety in the event of severe weather? Is it the government’s responsibility to protect us from weather?

Severe weather warnings have improved greatly over the last few years following the introduction of Doppler weather radars, but even the best warnings will not be effective if people do not hear the warnings and react to them.

A key piece of the warning system is the the NOAA Weather Radio Service. It broadcasts weather information 24 hours a day directly from National Weather Service offices. This service has existed in Arkansas for years but many people have never heard of it.

A special feature of  NOAA Weather Radio receivers is the capability to turn themselves on when a storm warning or watch is issued for the listener’s area. Even if the person is asleep or not keeping up with the weather conditions that person will be alerted immediately of dangerous weather.

Many models are equipped a feature called SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding) that allows the listener to select only those counties for which he wants to receive alerts. Most people, for example, would set the radio for the county in which they live and one or two counties to the southwest or west since storms often move in from those those directions.

There are currently 25 NOAA weather radio transmitters serving Arkansas, including four covering Southeast Arkansas counties. The counties served, the location of the transmitters serving each county and the frequencies are:

Ashley County
Fountain Hill 162.475
El Dorado 162.525

Bradley County
El Dorado 162.525
Fountain Hill 162.475
Star City 162.400

Chicot County
Fountain Hill 162.475
Inverness, Miss. 162.425

Desha County
Fountain Hill 162.475
Star City 162.400

Drew County
Fountain Hill 162.475
Star City 162.400

Lincoln County
Star City 162.400

NOAA weather radios are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at stores that sell radio equipment as well as discount stores and department stores.

Other storm warning sources include telephone notification services, television, radio and Internet.

Trained storm spotters are also a great asset to a community. They serve as the local eyes for the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service’s Skywarn storm spotter program trains interested citizens, local law enforcement, and emergency service providers how to accurately spot and report local storms and weather-based phenomena.

Severe Weather Awareness Week

While March, April and May are the peak months for tornadoes in Arkansas, a secondary severe weather season often occurs in the fall.

Gov. Mike Beebe proclaimed March 2 through March 8, as Severe Weather Awareness Week in Arkansas. The event corresponds with the National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, which is sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, the National Weather Service asks citizens to “Be a Force of Nature” and better prepare for severe weather threats.

It conjunction with Severe Weather Awareness Week, the National Weather service released the following tips, rules and information:

– Do not to take shelter under a highway overpass. A wind tunnel effect caused by wind being channeled under the overpass can easily cause a person to be blown from beneath the overpass. The channeling effect also causes winds to be stronger under the overpass.

– Be sure you know the difference between a watch and a warning. The National Weather Service issues a tornado watch when tornadoes are possible and a tornado warning when a tornado has been sighted or has been indicated on Doppler weather radar.

– Make sure you have a reliable way to receive weather information. A battery-powered weather radio is an excellent way to keep up with the weather even if you lose power. It is also a necessity if you are planning to be outdoors.

–  Large gatherings. If you are going to be at a large gathering, such as a school stadium or place of worship, make sure someone has been designated to keep an eye on the weather and listen for the latest watches and warnings.

– The safest places to be during a tornado are a tornado cellar, safe room or basement but if you do not have those go to the interior room or hallway on the lowest floor of a house or building and get underneath a mattress or heavy piece of furniture.

– Stay away from windows.

– If you are in a vehicle, the best option is to move to a sturdy building.

– Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection during a tornado and should be abandoned.

– Flying debris causes the most casualties in a tornado.

– Make provisions for the elderly, the very young and people with physical and mental challenges. They will often need more time to get to safety.

– Schools that use the school bell or a public address system to notify students and teachers to take their tornado precautions should have an alternate notification method in the event power is lost.

– If your school has a safe room in the school but does not have an emergency generator do you know how long the emergency lighting in the safe room will stay on?

– Closing doors part-way down a hallway can help prevent the hall from becoming a wind tunnel if doors or windows at the end of the hall blow in.

– If students are sheltered near lockers or bookcases make sure the lockers and bookcases are bolted to the wall or floor so they cannot topple over.

– Do you have plans for where students and teachers will be sheltered if a tornado arises while they are in the lunchroom or at an assembly?

– Do you have plans for who will notify students, teachers and coaches in the event of a tornado threat before or after normal school hours? This would apply to those who may be taking part in extracurricular activities, especially after school. Statistics show that chances for tornadoes typically increase during the late afternoon hours.

The National Weather Service and Leslie McKiever, a geologist and NOAA-certified Skywarn Spotter, contributed to this story.