‘Getting to a good place’

by Donna Lampkin Stephens
Mike Kemp photo

Slowly but surely, life has gotten back to almost normal for Preston Scroggin after the April 27, 2014, tornado that forever altered his life as well as so many others in the 501.

The EF-4 tornado that deadly day obliterated his home and ranch on South Marshall Road in Vilonia. Sixteen people in Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties died of tornado-related injuries from the storm, which particularly devastated Mayflower and Vilonia, and followed another deadly tornado in Vilonia in 2011.

“Everybody’s nearly back,” said Scroggin, 49, a fifth-generation cattle rancher and former state representative, Faulkner County judge and executive director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission. “Time heals all wounds. We’re a lot closer than we were.

“In our particular operation, we should have everything completely sewed up probably by June. We’ve got all of our equipment fixed, all seven of our barns completed and all of our fences up. We’re back handling cattle again at both the south and north farms.

“But still, every time you go out and drive across, if you’re checking cattle or cutting hay, you’ll find debris, little pieces of metal, out in the fields, and we’ll pick it up.”

His south farm was completely totaled — the home he’d lived in with his family as a teenager, all his fences and barns, 121 head of cattle and his “old yellow tomcat” Tom. Everything was gone — clothes, furniture, papers, family photographs and other heirlooms.

Much progress was made in the first year, but the cleanup continued throughout the second.

“We had lots of holes and divots from debris — heavy pieces of roof, metal roofs, cars, tractors, carport doors, anything you can imagine,” he said. “It was kind of like you took a whole bunch of people’s lives and put them in a blender and spread it out from Mayflower to the other side of Vilonia.”

When he cleaned out some of the ponds on the south farm in September, the discoveries were amazing.

“We found a bass boat,” he said. “We found the neck off a horse trailer that belonged to a good friend and neighbor who lives probably two-and-a-half miles southwest of our farm. That big debris cloud was coming along with the tornado with cars and whatever else, so we’ve had to fill a lot of holes where all that stuff made holes in the ground.”

Recently, he was in Pine Bluff picking up a roller to continue fine-tuning the cleanup of the fields.

Since leaving the Livestock and Poultry Commission after the newly elected Gov. Asa Hutchinson replaced him as executive director, Scroggin has farmed full time. His cattle now number 500-600, down slightly still in number since the storm.

“One thing we had to do for our operation was, every piece of equipment that we had that we could salvage, our feed wagons, our tractors, we had to rebuild, and it was a slow process,” he said. “On the tractors, we had to put new cabs on them and fix the instrumentation, and the feed wagons had to have some things done for unloading feed.

“We’ve been like a restaurant — soft openings and then a little harder one. I had several tractors I couldn’t salvage, but we’ve been able to salvage 98 percent of our equipment. We had to weld and fabricate metal for a lot of it.”

Since the tornado, he has added fruits and vegetables to his cattle business. He raised 10 acres of purple hull peas, corn, okra and tomatoes last year for the first time, selling to retailers and some wholesalers.

“We’ll do that again this year,” he said. “I really enjoyed it, but I’m not going to try to do it all myself this time. I had some help, but I told them I’m not going to work that hard this year.”

He said he hoped by June that he and his wife, Lori, would be moving into the new home they’ve built on the south farm.

“It’s pretty,” he said. “The grass is green, and we’ve got beautiful sunrises and sunsets. But no trees.”

He said he would look into planting some trees in the next year or so.

Until then, he and his neighbors are making the most of the tragedy.

“We’ve got some of the best hay baling fields in Arkansas,” he said. “We’re going to get a new Harp’s grocery store this summer. My good friend, Kieth McCord, got his service station back up and running. He’s been my friend for 30 years, and he worked out of a portable garage for two years until just recently. There’s not another service station like that in Arkansas. It’s beautiful. These are good folk and hard-working people.”

He said he and Lori were planning their first post-tornado vacation they could actually enjoy for early April.

“Everybody seems to be good,” he said of himself and his neighbors. “It’s the first chance for me and, I think, a lot of people to have a chance to actually look around and take stock. We’ve all been so busy the last two years, but I think we can now look and take stock.

“We’re getting to a good place. It’s not been all roses; there’s been some mental and physical turmoil, but we’re getting to a good place. We’ve all been through a lot. It takes a physical and an emotional and a mental toll.

“You go through one of these, and you come out the other side — it definitely makes you more humble and more understanding of how sacred life is and how no matter — you can have all these worldly possessions and in 30 seconds they can be gone.”