The early morning hours of April 16, 1998 brought deadly tornadoes to two areas of the Mid-South. One area was parts of Mississippi County, Arkansas. The other was parts of Dyer County, Tennessee. Tornadoes hit three communities -- Manila and Blytheville, Arkansas, and RoEllen, Tennessee. All three tornadoes were spawned by the same tornadic 'supercell' thunderstorm.
The thunderstorm first became severe around 2:35 a.m. over the east part of Craighead County, Arkansas, just west of the Mississippi County line. Moving toward the east-northeast, the storm moved over northwest parts of Mississippi County and quickly developed radar signals of tornado potential, so a Tornado Warning was issued for Mississippi County at 2:42 a.m. The warning said the tornado would pass near Manila in just eight minutes, at 2:50 a.m.
The next radar scan showed very positive indications of a tornado and indicated the tornado would pass very near Manila. So, around 2:44 a.m., a call was placed to the only 24-hour telephone number the NWS had available in the town - the fire department. Although the NWS didn't know it at the time, the Manila Fire Department is a volunteer unit, and the telephone rings at all member's homes at the same time. One volunteer fireman answered the call, but there were 20 firemen listening in on the call. The fireman confirmed that they were aware of the tornado warning, and said that the town's siren had already been turned on -- the NWS forecaster could hear the siren over the phone. As we learned later, the town's Fire Chief heard the tornado warning over a radio scanner and activated the siren a short time before the telephone call came from the NWS.
The tornado first struck the southwest corner of the town at 2:50 a.m., according to a resident who checked her clock just before her house was hit. She was waiting for a scheduled 3:00 a.m. ride to work when she heard the tornado warning over radio, hearing that the tornado would reach Manila at 2:50 a.m., she looked at her wall clock just as the storm struck. At that point the tornado was producing F-1 damage (Fig. 2).
Moving toward the northeast, the tornado increased to F-2 intensity and demolished or heavily damaged several homes in the housing development at Manila's southwest corner. All of the demolished residences were mobile homes, while though of relatively light construction, most conventional homes in that area sustained no more than moderate damage. One of the razed mobile homes (Fig. 2, #1) was occupied by a family of four persons. Both parents were seriously injured. Both children, a three year-old boy and his eight year-old sister were killed.
Next the tornado moved over a quarter-mile wide open field and intensified to F-4 level. It then flattened a six month-old discount department store (Fig. 2, #3) and an adjacent gas station/food mart (Fig. 2, #2) along Highway 18. The tornado continued northeast through an area of commercial and light industrial buildings, totally destroying three small factory and machine shop buildings (Fig. 2, #4). Also totally demolished along Highway 18 was a furniture store just to the north of the factory buildings. Commercial structures adjacent to the tornado main track sustained heavy damage, and some may be considered total losses.
The tornado then began to sweep into the west side of the main residential section of Manila. Although the tornado began to weaken and quickly diminished to F-1 intensity, several homes (both convential and mobile home construction) were fully demolished in a block-long section along Olympia Street as the tornado weakened. Several persons were injured in this area.
In its weakened state (F-1 to F-0 intensity), the tornado continued northeast across the north and northeast parts of Manila. The storm toppled nearly all the large trees in those sections of town, and created significant roof damage to many homes. Some of the damage was caused by falling trees.
The tornado exited the northeast part of Manila at F-0 intensity and moved into an open section of country -- a wildlife refuge area where no further damage was noted or reported.