Death toll tops 26 as tornadoes tear through US Midwest and South
Survivors recount flying debris, destroyed buildings after storms that spawned several tornadoes hit at least eight states in the US.
At least 26 people have been killed and dozens more injured after storms and tornadoes tore through towns and cities across Southern and Midwestern parts of the United States.
Several tornadoes touched down on Friday night across at least eight states, laying waste to homes and businesses and splintering trees, as part of a sprawling storm system that brought wildfires to the southern plains states and blizzard conditions to the upper Midwest.
Tens of thousands lost power as the storms smothered a swath of the country home to some 85 million people.
The dead included nine in the state of Tennessee, four in neighbouring Arkansas, and four in Illinois. Other deaths were reported in the states of Indiana, Alabama and Mississippi.
In Arkansas, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and activated 100 members of the National Guard to help local authorities respond.
Four of the deaths in Arkansas were reported in the town of Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people. Stunned residents of the town woke on Saturday to find the high school’s roof shredded and its windows blown out. Huge trees lay on the ground, their stumps reduced to nubs. Broken walls, windows and roofs pocked homes and businesses.
Debris and memories of regular life lay scattered inside the shells of homes and on lawns: clothing, insulation, roofing paper, toys, splintered furniture, a pick-up truck with its windows shattered.
Ashley Macmillan told The Associated Press news agency that she, her husband and their children huddled with their dogs in a small bathroom as a tornado passed, “praying and saying goodbye to each other, because we thought we were dead”. A falling tree seriously damaged their home, but no one in the family was hurt.
“We could feel the house shaking, we could hear loud noises, dishes rattling. And then it just got calm,” she said.
Recovery was already under way, with workers using chainsaws to cut fallen trees and bulldozers moving material from shattered structures. Utility trucks worked to restore power.
In the Little Rock area in Arkansas, at least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, authorities said.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott said that 2,100 homes and businesses were in the tornado’s path, but that no assessment had been done on how many were damaged.
Don Nichols, manager of a piano business in Little Rock, said he took cover under the stairs of his store when the tornado hit.
“We only had a little damage to our store. Just a window was blown out and the ceiling tiles dropped,” he told Al Jazeera. “But the restaurant next door to us is closed. The walls were literally pulled out.”
In Tennessee, at least seven people died in McNairy County, east of the city of Memphis, along the Mississippi border, said David Leckner, the mayor of Adamsville.
“The majority of the damage has been done to homes and residential areas,” Leckner said, adding that although it appeared all people had been accounted for, crews were going door to door to be sure.
‘Everything crashes down’
In Belvidere, Illinois, part of the roof of the Apollo Theatre collapsed as about 260 people were attending a heavy metal concert.
“The lights go out, I hear a noise. Everything crashes down,” Jessica Hernandez, who was inside the theatre on Friday, told Reuters in an interview. Hernandez, 18, said her friends had convinced her to attend the concert.
Some of the concertgoers pulled a 50-year-old man from the rubble, but he was dead when emergency workers arrived. Officials said 40 other people were hurt, including two with life-threatening injuries.
“They dragged someone out from the rubble, and I sat with him and I held his hand and I was [telling him] ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do,” concertgoer Gabrielle Lewellyn told WTVO-TV.
Crews worked on Saturday to clean up around the Apollo, with forklifts pulling away loosely hanging bricks. Business owners picked up shards of glass and covered shattered windows.
In Crawford County, Illinois, another three people were killed and eight others injured after a tornado hit around New Hebron, Bill Burke, the county board chair, said.
Sheriff Bill Rutan said 60 to 100 families were displaced.
“We’ve had emergency crews digging people out of their basements because the house is collapsed on top of them, but luckily they had that safe space to go to,” Rutan said at a news conference.
Another three people died in Indiana’s Sullivan County, near the Illinois line about 95 miles (150km) southwest of Indianapolis. A state of emergency was declared for the affected areas, officials said.
Sullivan Mayor Clint Lamb told reporters that an area south of the county seat of about 4,000 “is essentially unrecognisable right now” and that several people were rescued from rubble overnight.
There were reports of as many as 12 people injured, he said, and search-and-rescue teams combed damaged areas.
Another suspected tornado killed a woman in northern Alabama’s Madison County, said county official Mac McCutcheon. And in northern Mississippi’s Pontotoc County, officials confirmed one death and four injuries.
It could take days to determine the exact number of tornadoes, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center. There were also hundreds of reports of large hail and damaging winds, he said.
“That’s a quite active day,” he said. “But that’s not unprecedented.”
More than 530,000 homes and businesses in the affected area lacked power at midday Saturday, at least 200,000 of them in Ohio, according to PowerOutage.us.
The sprawling storm system also brought wildfires to the southern Plains, with nearly 100 new ones reported Friday in Oklahoma, according to the state forest service.
At least 32 people were injured in the fires, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. There were reports of more than 40 homes destroyed around the state.
The storms also caused blizzard conditions in the Upper Midwest.
A threat of tornadoes and hail remained for the Northeast including in parts of Pennsylvania and New York.
The turbulent weather came after President Joe Biden toured the wreckage of a major storm that hit the state of Mississippi last week.
The swarm of thunderstorms unleashed a deadly tornado that devastated the Mississippi town of Rolling Fork, destroying many of the community’s 400 homes and killing 25 people. One person was killed in neighbouring Alabama.
Biden promised to rebuild in Mississippi as meteorologists warned millions of people to brace for enormous storms brewing over at least 15 states in the Midwest and southern US, with more than 85 million people under weather advisories on Friday.