MAYFLOWER, Ark. – A broad tornado sliced through Little Rock’s suburbs Sunday, killing 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 2-mile stretch of Interstate 40, a major thoroughfare into 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 and destroying dozens of homes in Baxter Springs.
The twister was estimated to be three blocks wide when it struck Baxter Springs, destroying 60 to 70 homes and 20 to 25 businesses in the city of roughly 4,200 residents, according to Cherokee County, Kan., emergency manager Jason Allison.
The twister injured 25 people in Baxter Springs and one person died, 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 today in the South and Mississippi Valley.
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.
In Arkansas, Pulaski County sheriff’s Lt. Carl Minden said three people were killed when a tornado destroyed a home near 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.
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.
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.
Tornadoes also touched down Sunday in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Tornado warnings, which indicate the greatest threat of a strike, were also in effect for parts of southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas as of 9 p.m. CDT.
To the southeast, northern Louisiana and Mississippi were bracing for severe storms along with the possibility of flash flooding.