A broad tornado sliced through Little Rock’s suburbs Sunday, killing at least 11 people and leaving behind a miles-long path of destruction as a powerful system rumbling off the Plains provided a violent kick-start to the nation’s tornado season.
The scene was the same in town after town, with emergency workers and volunteers going door-to-door to check for victims. State troopers performed the same task among the damaged and toppled 18-wheelers, cars and trucks on a two-mile stretch of Interstate 40, a major thoroughfare in and out of Arkansas’ capital city.
“It turned pitch black,” said Mark Ausbrooks, who was at his parents’ home in Mayflower when the storm arrived. “I ran and got pillows to put over our heads and … all hell broke loose.”
“My parents’ home, it’s gone completely,” he said.
Forecasters had warned for days that violent weather would strike this weekend, ending an unusually calm weather pattern. A morning storm forced a delay at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and by afternoon the weather system had grown deadly, spawning a tornado that killed a person in Quapaw, Okla., before moving north into Kansas.
When it reached Baxter Springs, a Kansas community of roughly 4,200 residents just across the border from Quapaw, the twister was estimated to be three blocks wide said Cherokee County emergency manager Jason Allison. It destroyed 60 to 70 homes and another 20 to 25 businesses in the city, he said.
The twister injured 25 people in Baxter Springs and one person also died there, but it wasn’t clear if the death was related to the storm, said Kari West, a spokeswoman for the Southeast Kansas Incident Management Team.
More storms are expected Monday in the South and Mississippi Valley.
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 in the cellar and they were “packed like sardines.”
“Everyone is welcome to come into it,” she said. “In fact, people were pulling off the highways and were just running in.”
She said the men held the cellar doors shut while the tornado did its best to pull them open.
“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.”
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, put the Arkansas death toll at 11 — five each in Faulkner and Pulaski counties and one in White County. He said Beebe’s office was relying on reports confirmed through the state Department of Emergency Management.
Pulaski County Sheriff’s Lt. Carl Minden said three people died at a home on the Pulaski/Saline county line about 10 miles west of Little Rock. Minden said several others were injured at the scene.
“I’m standing on the foundation of the house now. It’s totally gone,” Minden told The Associated Press by phone.
In Mayflower, Jacci Juniel was caught away from her home after leaving to find her son as the storm approached. Her 96-year-old mother, left at home, suffered cuts when the storm blew out a window.
“We had to climb over trees and power lines and underneath trees. I was just trying to get home to my mom,” Juniel said.
Nearby Vilonia was hit hard for the second time in three years. Four people were killed in a 2011 storm.
“Homes and businesses are destroyed,” DeCample said. “The size of the path sounds like a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile wide when it went through.”
The Arkansas storm, which was on the ground off-and-on for nearly 80 miles, was one of several tornadoes that touched down Sunday as a large storm system moved through parts of the Plains, Midwest and South.
Less than two hours before the Arkansas tornado struck, the twister hit Quapaw, a community of about 900 residents in northeastern Oklahoma near its border with Kansas and Missouri. Ottawa County sheriff’s dispatcher Kelli Soechs said it killed one person, not two, as her office erroneously reported earlier in the evening. Soechs declined to explain the discrepancy.
Five of the six injured in Quapaw were treated and released from Baptist Regional Health Center in Miami, Okla., said hospital spokeswoman Kristie Wallace. The sixth, who was in fair condition with a broken bone, was kept overnight, she said.
Ottawa County Emergency Management director Joe Dan Morgan said Quapaw was heavily damaged by the tornado.
“Looks like about half of town got extensive damage as well as the fire department,” Morgan said.
Storm ratings for Sunday’s twisters were not immediately available. Before Sunday, the country had not had a tornado rated EF3 or higher — with winds above 136 mph — since Nov. 17. The 160-day streak is the fourth-longest on record. Sunday also would be the latest date for a year’s first storm rated EF3 or higher. The previous latest first big storm was March 31, 2002.
Tornadoes also touched down Sunday in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. One touched down northwest of Joplin, Mo., where a massive tornado in May 2011 killed 161 people, injured many others and leveled a large swath of the city. Sunday’s twister didn’t hit Joplin.
Sunday was the third anniversary of a 122-tornado day, which struck parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia and killed 316 people.
Meanwhile, authorities in North Carolina said earlier Sunday that an 11-month-old boy who was injured by a tornado on Friday died Sunday at a hospital. His home was destroyed by one of eight tornadoes that hit the state that day.