LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A tornado swept through Little Rock and its surrounding area on Friday, smashing through homes, overturning vehicles and tossing trees and debris onto roads as people rushed for cover. There have been reports of at least one death and two dozen or more injuries, some seriously.
Another tornado hit the town of Wynne in the eastern part of the state near the Tennessee border, and authorities reported extensive damage, including destroyed homes and downed trees.
There were more confirmed tornadoes in Iowa, devastating hail fell in Illinois and wind-whipped grass fires erupted in Oklahoma, part of a threatening massive storm system a large swath of the country that is home to some 85 million people in the South and Midwest.
The destructive weather came as President Joe Biden visited the aftermath of a deadly tornado that hit Mississippi a week ago and promised the government would help the region recover.
The Little Rock tornado first ripped through neighborhoods in the western part of town and tore through a small shopping center that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River to North Little Rock and surrounding towns, where extensive damage was reported to homes, businesses and vehicles.
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In the evening, Pulaski County officials announced a confirmed death in North Little Rock but did not immediately provide details.
The University of Arkansas Medical Center for Medical Sciences in Little Rock was operating at a mass casualty level and preparing for up to 20 patients, spokesperson Leslie Taylor said. Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock officials told KATV in the afternoon that 21 people had checked in there with injuries from a tornado, including five in critical condition.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who announced he was asking for help from the National Guard, tweeted in the evening that officials knew 24 people had been hospitalized in the city but no deaths so far.
“The material damage is significant and we continue to react,” he said.
Resident Niki Scott took refuge in the bathroom after her husband called to say a tornado was heading her way. She could hear shards of glass as the tornado roared past, and emerged afterwards to find that her house was one of the few on her street that did not have a fallen tree on it.
“It’s like everyone says. It got really quiet and then it got really loud,” Scott said afterwards, as chainsaws roared and sirens sounded in the area.
Outside a Little Rock Guitar Center, five people were captured on video pointing their phones at the swirling sky. “Um, no, it’s a real tornado, y’all. It’s coming this way,” Red Padilla, lead singer and songwriter of Red and the Revelers, said in the video.
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Padilla told The Associated Press that he and five bandmates sheltered inside the store for about 15 minutes with more than a dozen others as the tornado passed. The power went out and they used the flashlights on their phones to see.
“It was really tense,” Padilla said.
At Clinton National Airport, passengers and workers took temporary shelter in restrooms.
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and said there was “significant damage” in the central part of the state.
“Praying for all who were and remain in the path of this storm,” she tweeted. “Arkansans must continue to stay aware of the weather as the storms continue to move.”
The town of Wynne, about 80 km west of Memphis, Tennessee, was also affected.
Councilwoman Lisa Powell Carter told AP by phone that Wynne was without power and the roads were full of debris.
“I’m freaking out trying to get home, but we can’t get home,” she said. “Wynne is so demolished. … There are destroyed houses, felled trees in the streets.
Police Chief Richard Dennis told WHBQ-TV the town suffered “utter destruction” and several people were trapped.
Nearly 70,000 Arkansas customers lost power, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages.
About 32,000 people were without power in neighboring Oklahoma, where wind gusts of up to 60 mph fueled fast-moving grass fires. People were told to evacuate homes in far northeast Oklahoma City, and soldiers closed portions of Interstate 35 near the suburb of Edmond.
Other outages were reported in Kansas, Missouri and Texas.
Several tornadoes were reported moving through parts of eastern Iowa, causing sporadic damage to homes, barns and other buildings.
A tornado deflected just west of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, which canceled a watch party at an on-campus arena for the women’s basketball Final Four game. Video from KCRG-TV showed toppled utility poles and ripped roofs from an apartment building in suburban Coralville and extensively damaged homes in the town of Hills.
In Illinois, Ben Wagner, chief radar operator for the Woodford County Emergency Management Agency, said hail shattered the windows of cars and buildings in the Roanoke area, northeast of Peoria.
Fire crews were battling multiple blazes near El Dorado, Kansas, and some residents were told to evacuate, including about 250 elementary students who were moved to a high school.
On Friday, massive storms slammed into at least 15 states across the Midwestern and southern United States. Mississippi.
Forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center called for an unusually large outbreak of thunderstorms that could bring hail, damaging wind gusts and strong tornadoes that could move long distances above the ground.
Such “intense supercell thunderstorms” are only expected to become more common, especially in southern states, as temperatures rise around the world.
At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a traffic management program was implemented that delayed arriving planes by nearly two hours on average, WFLD-TV reported.
Last Friday night, a vicious tornado in Mississippi killed at least 21 people, injured dozens and flattened entire blocks as it blazed a path of destruction for more than an hour. About 2,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The toll was particularly high in Sharkey County, western Mississippi, where 13 people were killed in a county of 3,700. Winds of up to 200mph (322kph) swept through the rural farming town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars and toppling the town’s water tower.
Gensini said Friday’s atmospheric pattern is similar to conditions that were present during the killer Mississippi storm.
The dangerous forecast is the result of strong southerly winds carrying large amounts of moisture from the northern Gulf of Mexico, where they will interact with the strengthening storm system.
The weather service is predicting another batch of intense storms next Tuesday in the same general area as last week. At least the first 10 days of April will be tough, Accuweather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said earlier this week.
Associated Press writers Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Harm Venhuizenin in Madison, Wisconsin, Isabella O’Malley in Philadelphia, Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington, and Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.