Mayflower, Arkansas, AP—A tornado system ripped through several states in the central US and left at least 17 dead in a violent start to this year’s storm season, officials said.
The tornado touched down Sunday about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Little Rock, Arkansas, then carved an 80-mile (128-kilometer) path of destruction as it passed through or near several suburbs north of the state capital. It grew to be a half-mile (800 meters) wide and remained on the ground for much of that route, killing at least 16 people in that state, according to an updated figure given by the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management on Monday morning.
The tornado was the largest of several produced by a powerful storm system that rumbled through the central and southern US. Another twister killed a person in Oklahoma, before crossing into Kansas to the north and destroying 60 to 70 homes and injuring 25 people, according to authorities in Kansas. A death was reported in Kansas, but it wasn’t yet known if it was caused by the tornado, making the Oklahoma death the only confirmed fatality from Sunday’s storms outside of Arkansas.
The US had enjoyed a relative lull in violent weather and didn’t record the first tornado death until Sunday, when a North Carolina infant who was injured by a twister on Friday died at a hospital. The system that tore through the central Plains, Midwest and South on Sunday produced tornadoes that struck several states, including also Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.
The National Weather Service’s Little Rock office said it was virtually certain that the Arkansas storms would be rated as America’s strongest twister to date this year, though they didn’t form until night was setting in, so the full extent of the damage wouldn’t be known until later Monday.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said more storms were expected Monday in the South and Mississippi Valley. A suspected tornado injured one person and heavily damaged a home in northwest Louisiana on Monday morning.
President Barack Obama, speaking at a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino while traveling in Asia, sent his deepest condolences to the tornado’s victims and said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will work with local officials to aid in the disaster response.
“Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild, as long as it takes,” Obama said.
The Arkansas twister shredded cars and trucks stuck along an interstate highway north of Little Rock. After the storm passed, big trucks tried to navigate through the damage to continue their journeys, while onlookers took photos of the destruction.
From communities west of Little Rock to others well north of the capital, emergency workers and volunteers were going door-to-door checking for victims.
Law enforcement officers checked the damaged and toppled 18-wheelers, cars and trucks on a stretch of Interstate 40, a major thoroughfare in and out of the state’s capital.
Becky Naylor, of Mayflower, said she and her family went to their storm cellar after hearing that tornado debris was falling in nearby Morgan. Naylor, 57, said there were between 20 and 22 people “packed like sardines” in the cellar.
“People were pulling off the highways and were just running in,” she said.
Men held the cellar doors shut while the tornado’s winds tried to rip them apart.
“It sounded like a constant rolling, roaring sound,” she said. “Trees were really bending and the light poles were actually shaking and moving. That’s before we shut the door and we’ve only shut the door to the storm cellar two times.”
Forecasters had warned for days that violent weather would strike over the weekend.
In Arkansas, authorities said three people were killed when a tornado destroyed a home west of Little Rock, and several others were injured at the scene.
Storm ratings for Sunday’s twisters were not immediately available, but meteorologist Jeff Hood said the Mayflower storm could have been at least an EF3, meaning it would have had winds greater than 136 mph (218 kph).
Before Sunday, the US had not had a tornado rated EF3 or higher since November 17, a streak of 160 days, the fourth-longest on record. This also would be the latest date in the year for a storm rated EF3 or higher. The previous latest big storm for a year was March 31, 2002.
Sunday was the third anniversary of the day a massive system of 122 tornados struck parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia and killed 316 people.