LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A monster storm system tore through the South and Midwest on Friday, spawning deadly tornadoes that shredded homes and shopping centers, overturned vehicles and uprooted trees as people raced for shelter.
At least one person was killed and two dozen or more were hurt, some critically, in the Little Rock area, authorities said. The town of Wynne in northeastern Arkansas was also devastated, and officials reported two dead there, along with destroyed homes and people trapped in the debris.
There were more confirmed twisters in Iowa, damaging hail fell in Illinois and wind-whipped grass fires blazed in Oklahoma, as the storm system threatened a broad swath of the country home to some 85 million people.
The destructive weather came as President Joe Biden toured the aftermath of a deadly tornado that struck in Mississippi one week ago and promised the government would help the area recover.
The Little Rock tornado tore first through neighborhoods in the western part of the city and shredded a small shopping center that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, where widespread damage was reported to homes, businesses and vehicles.
In the evening, officials in Pulaski County announced a confirmed fatality in North Little Rock but did not immediately give details.
Video of the Little Rock tornado from Aaron Borders. #arwx pic.twitter.com/AoPvXHkH0I— James Bryant (@KATVJames) March 31, 2023
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center 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 tornado-caused injuries, including five in critical condition.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who announced that he was requesting assistance from the National Guard, tweeted in the evening that officials were aware of 24 people who had been hospitalized in the city.
“Property damage is extensive and we are still responding,” he said.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders activated 100 members of the Arkansas National Guard to help local authorities respond to the damage throughout the state.
In Little Rock, resident Niki Scott took cover in the bathroom after her husband called to say a tornado was headed her way. She could hear glass shattering as the tornado roared past, and emerged afterward to find that her house was one of the few on her street that didn’t have a tree fall on it.
“It’s just like everyone says. It got really quiet, then it got really loud,” Scott said afterward, as chainsaws roared and sirens blared in the area.
Outside a Guitar Center, five people were captured on video aiming their phones at the swirling sky. “Uh, no, that’s an actual tornado, y’all. It’s coming this way,” Red Padilla, a singer and songwriter in the band Red and the Revelers, said in the video.
Padilla told The Associated Press that he and five bandmates sheltered inside the store for around 15 minutes with over a dozen others while the tornado passed. The power went out, and they used the flashlights on their phones to see.
“It was real tense,” Padilla said.
At Clinton National Airport, passengers and workers sheltered temporarily in bathrooms.
“Praying for all those who were and remain in the path of this storm,” Sanders, who declared a state of emergency, said on Twitter. “Arkansans must continue to stay weather aware as storms are continuing to move through.”
About 50 miles west of Memphis, Tennessee, the small city of Wynne, Arkansas, saw “widespread damage” from a tornado, Sanders confirmed.
City Councilmember Lisa Powell Carter told AP by phone that Wynne was without power and roads were full of debris.
“I’m in a panic trying to get home, but we can’t get home,” she said. “Wynne is so demolished. ... There’s houses destroyed, trees down on streets.”
Police Chief Richard Dennis told WHBQ-TV that the city suffered “total destruction” and multiple people were trapped.
City officials implemented a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The unrelenting tornadoes continued moving east into the evening.
Police in Covington, Tennessee, also reported storm damage including downed power lines and toppled trees.
Multiple tornadoes were reported moving through parts of eastern Iowa, with sporadic damage to buildings. Images showed at least one flattened barn and some houses with roofing and siding ripped off.
One tornado veered just west of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, which cancelled a watch party at an on-campus arena for the women’s basketball Final Four game. Video from KCRG-TV showed toppled power poles and roofs ripped off an apartment building in the suburb of Coralville and significantly damaged homes in the city of Hills.
Nearly 90,000 customers in Arkansas lost power, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages.
About 32,000 were without electricity in neighboring Oklahoma, where where wind gusts of up to 60 mph fueled fast-moving grass fires. People were urged to evacuate homes in far northeast Oklahoma City, and troopers shut down portions of Interstate 35 near the suburb of Edmond.
More outages were reported in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas.
In Illinois, Ben Wagner, chief radar operator for the Woodford County Emergency Management Agency, said hail broke windows on cars and buildings in the area of Roanoke, northeast of Peoria.
Fire crews were battling several blazes near El Dorado, Kansas, and some residents were asked to evacuate, including about 250 elementary school children who were relocated to a high school.
At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a traffic management program was put into effect that caused arriving planes to be delayed by nearly two hours on average, WFLD-TV reported.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center had forecast an unusually large outbreak of thunderstorms with the potential to cause hail, damaging wind gusts and strong tornadoes that could move for long distances over the ground.
Such “intense supercell thunderstorms " are only expected to become more common, especially in Southern states, as temperatures rise around the world.
Meteorologists said conditions Friday were similar to those a week ago that unleashed the devastating twister that killed at least 21 people and damaged some 2,000 homes in Mississippi.
The toll was especially steep in western Mississippi’s Sharkey County, where 13 people were killed in a county of 3,700 residents. Winds of up to 200 mph (322 kph) barreled through the rural farming town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars and toppling the town’s water tower.
The hazardous conditions were a result of strong southerly winds transporting copious amounts of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico north, where they will interact with the strengthening storm system.
The weather service is forecasting 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 rough, 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, Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Mississippi and Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.