VILONIA, Ark. (AP) – A state agency has raised the death toll from a huge tornado that cut a sporadic 80-mile path through central Arkansas to 16.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management reported on its website early Monday that there are now 10 confirmed deaths from Sunday’s tornado in Faulkner County. There are still five confirmed deaths in Pulaski County and one in White County.
The tornado was the largest of several spawned by a powerful storm system moving through the central and southern United States. It also formed a tornado that killed a person in Quapaw, Okla., on Sunday before moving northward into Kansas.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
Residents of Vilonia, which was devastated by a tornado three years ago, huddled in the dark early Monday wondering how they would rebuild again, after the nation’s strongest twister this year leveled homes and businesses in their city and others nearby, killing at least 13 people.
The tornado touched down Sunday about 10 miles west of Little Rock at about 7 p.m., then carved a 80-mile path of destruction as it passed through or near several suburbs north of Arkansas’ capital city. It grew to be a half-mile wide and remained on the ground for much of that route, authorities said.
“There’s just really nothing there anymore. We’re probably going to have to start all over again,” Vilonia Schools Superintendent Frank Mitchell said after surveying what had been a $14 million intermediate school set to open this fall.
The tornado was the largest of several formed by a powerful storm system that rumbled through the central and southern U.S. 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 death was reported in Baxter Springs, but it wasn’t yet known if it was caused by the tornado, making the Oklahoma death the only confirmed death from Sunday’s storms outside of Arkansas. The overall death toll stood at 14 early Monday.
The tornado that hit Arkansas didn’t form until night was setting in, so the full extent of the damage wouldn’t be known until after sunrise on Monday. The Storm Prediction Center said more storms were expected Monday in the South and Mississippi Valley.
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 to continue their journeys, while gawkers held smartphones to their windows to offer a grim glimpse of the destruction.
State troopers went vehicle-to-vehicle to check on motorists and said with genuine surprise that no one was killed.
“About 30 vehicles – large trucks, sedans, pickup trucks – were going through there when the funnel cloud passed over,” said Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police.
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 gone – 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.
The country 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 Friday died at the hospital. But the storm system that moved through the Plains, Midwest and South on Sunday spawned tornadoes that struck several states, including Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa as well as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The National Weather Service in North Little Rock said it was virtually certain that the Mayflower and Vilonia storm would be rated as the nation’s strongest twister to date this year.
“It has the potential to be EF3 or greater,” said meteorologist Jeff Hood. 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.”
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.
“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.
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’s winds tried to rip 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.”
The other time was during the 2011 storm.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management raised the Arkansas death toll to 13 early Monday – seven in Faulkner County, five in Pulaski County and one in White County.
The White House issued a statement in which President Barack Obama promised that the federal government would help in the recovery and praised the heroic efforts of first-responders and neighbors.
“Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild as long as it takes,” Obama said.
Storm ratings for Sunday’s twisters were not immediately available. Before Sunday, the country had not had a tornado rated EF3 or higher since Nov. 17, streak of 160 days, the fourth-longest on record. This also would be the latest date 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 a 122-tornado day, which struck parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia and killed 316 people.
Christina Huynh reported from Mayflower. Associated Press writers Jill Bleed and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Tim Talley in Oklahoma City and Roxana Hegeman in Baxter Springs, Kan., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)