4 dead, dozens injured as tornado system pulverizes South, Midwest
There were more confirmed twisters in Iowa, damaging hail fell in Illinois and grass fires blazed in Oklahoma, as the storm system threatened a broad swath of the country home to some 85 million people.
March 31, 2023 - 6:50 pm
Updated March 31, 2023 - 9:54 pm
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A monster storm system tore through the South and Midwest on Friday, spawning deadly tornadoes that shredded homes and shopping centers in Arkansas and collapsed a theater roof during a heavy metal concert in Illinois.
At least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, in the Little Rock area, authorities said. The town of Wynne in northeastern Arkansas was also devastated, and officials reported two dead there, along with destroyed homes and people trapped in the debris.
Authorities said a theater roof collapsed during a tornado in Belvidere, Illinois, killing one person and injuring 28. The Belvidere Police Department said the collapse occurred as a heavy storm rolled through the area and that calls began coming from the theater at 7:48 p.m. It said that an initial assessment was that a tornado had caused the damage.
The collapse occurred at the Apollo Theatre during a heavy metal concert in the town located about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northwest of Chicago.
Belvidere Fire Department Chief Shawn Schadle said 260 people were in the venue at the time. He said first responders also rescued someone from an elevator and had to grapple with downed power lines outside the theater.
Belvidere Police Chief Shane Woody described the scene after the collapse as “chaos, absolute chaos.”
There were more confirmed twisters in Iowa and wind-whipped grass fires blazed in Oklahoma, as the storm system threatened a broad swath of the country home to some 85 million people.
Biden tours Mississippi town
The destructive weather came as President Joe Biden toured the aftermath of a deadly tornado that struck in Mississippi one week ago and promised the government would help the area recover.
The Little Rock tornado tore first through neighborhoods in the western part of the city and shredded a small shopping center that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, where widespread damage was reported to homes, businesses and vehicles.
In the evening, officials in Pulaski County announced a confirmed fatality in North Little Rock but did not immediately give details.
Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock officials told KATV in the afternoon that 21 people had checked in there with tornado-caused injuries, including five in critical condition.
National Guard activated
Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who announced that he was requesting assistance from the National Guard, tweeted in the evening that property damage was extensive and “we are still responding.”
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders activated 100 members of the Arkansas National Guard to help local authorities respond to the damage throughout the state.
In Little Rock, resident Niki Scott took cover in the bathroom after her husband called to say a tornado was headed her way. She could hear glass shattering as the tornado roared past, and emerged afterward to find that her house was one of the few on her street that didn’t have a tree fall on it.
“It’s just like everyone says. It got really quiet, then it got really loud,” Scott said afterward, as chainsaws roared and sirens blared in the area.
Outside a Guitar Center, five people were captured on video aiming their phones at the swirling sky. “Uh, no, that’s an actual tornado, y’all. It’s coming this way,” Red Padilla, a singer and songwriter in the band Red and the Revelers, said in the video.
Padilla told The Associated Press that he and five bandmates sheltered inside the store for around 15 minutes with over a dozen others while the tornado passed. The power went out, and they used the flashlights on their phones to see.
“It was real tense,” Padilla said.
At Clinton National Airport, passengers and workers sheltered temporarily in bathrooms.
“Praying for all those who were and remain in the path of this storm,” Sanders, who declared a state of emergency, said on Twitter. “Arkansans must continue to stay weather aware as storms are continuing to move through.”
Wynne, Ark., hit
About 50 miles west of Memphis, Tennessee, the small city of Wynne, Arkansas, saw “widespread damage” from a tornado, Sanders confirmed.
St. Francis County Coroner Miles J. Kimble told the AP by phone Friday night that he was assisting the Cross County coroner in Wynne and that two people died there in the tornado.
He said no other information was immediately available because officials were working to notify family members. The deaths were “very difficult to see,” he said.
The governor at a briefing with Little Rock officials Friday night said it was possible the number of deaths could rise.
“We’re hopeful that it doesn’t, but I think given the nature and the volatility of the situation, we’re preparing that it could,” she said.
City Councilmember Lisa Powell Carter told AP that the town Wynne was without power and roads were full of debris.
“I’m in a panic trying to get home, but we can’t get home,” she said. “Wynne is so demolished. … There’s houses destroyed, trees down on streets.”
City officials implemented a curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The unrelenting tornadoes continued spawning and touching down in the area into the night.
The police department in Covington, Tennessee, said on Facebook that the west Tennessee city was impassable after power lines and trees fell on roads when the storm passed through Friday evening. Authorities in Tipton County, north of Memphis, said a tornado appeared to have touched down near the middle school in Covington and in other locations in the rural county.
Tipton County Sheriff Shannon Beasley said on Facebook that homes and structures were severely damaged. Downed trees and power lines blocked several roads.
Tornadoes moved through parts of eastern Iowa, with sporadic damage to buildings. Images showed at least one flattened barn and some houses with roofing and siding ripped off.
Iowa watch party called off
One tornado veered just west of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, which cancelled a watch party at an on-campus arena for the women’s basketball Final Four game. Video from KCRG-TV showed toppled power poles and roofs ripped off an apartment building in the suburb of Coralville and significantly damaged homes in the city of Hills.
Nearly 90,000 customers in Arkansas lost power, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages.
In neighboring Oklahoma, wind gusts of up to 60 mph fueled fast-moving grass fires. People were urged to evacuate homes in far northeast Oklahoma City, and troopers shut down portions of Interstate 35.
In Illinois, Ben Wagner, chief radar operator for the Woodford County Emergency Management Agency, said hail broke windows on cars and buildings in the area of Roanoke, northeast of Peoria. More than 109,000 customers had lost power in the state as of Friday night.
More outages were reported in Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Indiana and Texas.
Fire crews were battling several blazes near El Dorado, Kansas, and some residents were asked to evacuate, including about 250 elementary school children who were relocated to a high school.
Long delays at O’Hare
At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a traffic management program was put into effect that caused arriving planes to be delayed by nearly two hours on average, WFLD-TV reported.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center had forecast an unusually large outbreak of thunderstorms with the potential to cause hail, damaging wind gusts and strong tornadoes that could move for long distances over the ground.
Such “intense supercell thunderstorms ” are only expected to become more common, especially in Southern states, as temperatures rise around the world.
Meteorologists said conditions Friday were similar to those a week ago that unleashed the devastating twister that killed at least 21 people and damaged some 2,000 homes in Mississippi.
The toll was especially steep in western Mississippi’s Sharkey County, where 13 people were killed in a county of 3,700 residents. Winds of up to 200 mph (322 kph) barreled through the rural farming town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars and toppling the town’s water tower.
The hazardous conditions were a result of strong southerly winds transporting copious amounts of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico north, where they will interact with the strengthening storm system.
The weather service is forecasting another batch of intense storms next Tuesday in the same general area as last week. At least the first 10 days of April will be rough, Accuweather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said earlier this week.
Associated Press writers Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Harm Venhuizenin in Madison, Wisconsin, Isabella O’Malley in Philadelphia, Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington, Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Mississippi and Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.