CRYSTAL SPRINGS, Ark. – Powerful spring storms roared through parts of the South on Friday, toppling trees, smashing buildings and killing at least 10 people, including two sets of parents and children who were huddled together as the winds raged outside their homes.
It was the deadliest storm of the season so far. Several tornados accompanied the onslaught, but much of the damage was attributed to straight-line winds – sudden, violent downbursts that struck with hurricane force in the middle of the night.
As the storm howled through Crystal Springs, Eden Davis woke up, grabbed her young child and sat on the edge of the bed waiting to pull a mattress over both of them to shield the pair from flying debris.
“I’ve never been so nervous about a storm,” she said. “I was asleep, but my fiance called me and told me to wake up and that I needed to watch the news because the weather was getting real bad.”
Forecasters warned of approaching danger as much as three days earlier, but the winds up to 80 mph and repeated lightning strikes cut a path of destruction across a region so accustomed to violent weather that many people ignored the risk – or slept through it.
The storms began late Thursday in Oklahoma, where at least five tornadoes touched down and two people were killed. The system then pushed into Arkansas, killing seven more. Dozens of others were hurt.
By midday Friday, the storms marched into Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi, and later into Georgia and Alabama. At least three twisters touched down in Mississippi, where a state of emergency was declared in 14 counties, causing widespread damage but only one serious injury.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said he had never seen the state suffer so many deaths from straight-line winds. Tornadoes and floods cause most of Arkansas storm-related fatalities.
“Just trees blowing on people’s residences – I don’t recall anything even approaching this,” Beebe said.
Unlike tornadoes, which develop from columns of rotating air, straight-line winds erupt from a thunderstorm in unpredictable downdrafts, then spread across the landscape in all directions.