VILONIA, Ark. — Emergency officials on Monday began searching for survivors in the debris left by a powerful tornado that carved an 80-mile path of destruction through suburban Little Rock, killing at least 16 people.
The tornado that slammed into Vilonia, about 10 miles west of the state capital, on Sunday evening grew to about half a mile wide and was among a rash of tornadoes and heavy storms that rumbled across the center and south of the country overnight. The National Weather Service warned that the destructive storms — including more tornadoes, damaging winds and very large hail — would continue to strike in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana on Monday.
Brandon Morris, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said crews were sifting through the rubble in the hope of uncovering survivors and to assess the full extent of the destruction.
"Right now, the main focus is life safety," Morris said. "We're trying to make sure everyone is accounted for."
Karla Ault, a Vilonia High School volleyball coach, said she sheltered in the school gymnasium as the storm approached. After it passed, her husband told her their home was reduced to the slab on which it had sat.
"I'm just kind of numb. It's just shock that you lost everything. You don't understand everything you have until you realize that all I've got now is just what I have on," Ault said.
A meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock said he was virtually certain the storm that hit Vilonia and nearby Mayflower would be rated as the nation's strongest twister to date this year.
"It has the potential to be EF3 or greater," meteorologist Jeff Hood said. EF3 storms have winds greater than 136 mph. "Based on some of the footage we've seen from Mayflower and where it crossed Interstate 40, things were wrecked in a very significant way."
He said officials are also looking at the environmental impact. "Making sure utilities are cut off in the area. We don't want anything to get, any fires to start or anything like that."
Another twister killed a person in Quapaw, Okla., before crossing into Kansas to the north and destroying 60 to 70 homes and injuring 25 people in the city of Baxter Springs, according to authorities in Kansas. A suspected tornado struck near Plain Dealing in northwest Louisiana.
The overall death toll stood at 17 early Monday.
Sue McBride, a 71-year old retired sewing machinist in Baxter Springs, said she thought the tornado sirens could spell a false alarm. But then she saw and heard the twister approaching. She said debris flew all around as she ran into her home. She hunkered on her knees in her hallway with her head down as the tornado shattered her windows, spraying glass all over her.
"I didn't have one scratch on me and I was fine," McBride said from a Red Cross shelter in the city, where the tornado left a trail of shattered homes, twisted metal and hanging power lines.
The Arkansas twister shredded cars, trucks and 18-wheelers stuck along Interstate 40 north of Little Rock. After the storm passed, tractor-trailer rigs tried to navigate through the damage as gawkers captured cellphone photos of the destruction.