Killer tornadoes tear through swaths of South, Midwest

By: CBS News
By: CBS News

Emergency officials were searching for survivors Monday in the debris left by a powerful tornado that carved an 80-mile path of destruction through suburban Little Rock, killing at least 14 people there and two elsewhere.

An earlier toll of 16 in Oklahoma was changed to 14 after it was clear that two victims were counted twice, Arkansas governor's aide Matt DeCample said, though he still expects the overall death toll to rise.

The tornado that slammed into Vilonia, Arkansas, about 10 miles west of the state capital, on Sunday evening grew to about half a mile wide and was among a rash of tornadoes and heavy storms that rumbled across the center and south of the country overnight. The National Weather Service warned that more tornadoes, damaging winds and very large hail would strike in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana on Monday.

"We've got a powerful storm system affecting the eastern two-thirds of the United States over the next few days," said Russell Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

The National Weather Service says 31 twisters have been reported since yesterday, and there is widespread damage in several states.

The tornado that touched down Sunday about 10 miles west of Little Rock, Arkansas, carved an 80-mile path of destruction as it passed through or near several suburbs north of the state capital, including Vilonia. It grew to be a half-mile wide and remained on the ground for much of that route, killing 16 people in that state.

"It was about the scariest thing I've ever been through in my life," Vilonia resident Bob Van Buyssum told CBS News. "The house came down on us."

For this small community of less than 2,500 people, nothing but rubble was visible.

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 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.

Among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that was set to open this fall.

"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 was left of the building.

The weather service's North Little Rock office 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."

A survivor in Arkansas said her father and two sisters were killed in a tornado that touched down in a neighborhood straddling the border of Saline and Pulaski Counties.

Lt. Carl Minden with Pulaski County Sheriff's Office said three people died Sunday after a tornado cleared a Paron home, leaving only the residence's foundation remaining. Seventeen-year-old Emily Tittle said her father, Rob Tittle; 20-year-old sister Tori and 14-year-old sister Rebekah were killed in the storm. She said her other six siblings were taken to hospitals, but three have since been discharged.

She said her family sought shelter beneath the stairs of their two-story home, but only half of them made it before walls were torn off their home.

Emily Tittle returned to the rubble Monday to search for personal items and photographs.

The tornado was the largest of several produced by a powerful storm system that rumbled through the central and southern U.S. In southeastern Iowa, a woman was killed when either a tornado or powerful straight-line winds caused a farm building to collapse. 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.

Authorities identified the person who died in Quapaw as 68-year-old John L. Brown, of Baxter Springs, Kan., who was traveling through Quapaw with his wife when the severe weather hit Sunday evening. Officials said the couple pulled into a parking lot and a large concrete wall fell on the car, trapping both inside. John Brown was pronounced dead at the scene. His wife was transported to a local hospital and treated and released. Her name has not been released.

A death was reported in Baxter Springs, but it wasn't yet known if it was caused by the tornado.

A suspected tornado struck near Plain Dealing in northwest Louisiana.

The overall death toll stood at 17 early Monday.

The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center said more storms were expected Monday in the South and Mississippi Valley.

Entergy in Arkansas reports that as of 10:00 a.m. Monday morning, more than 14,000 customers were without power.

In a statement, CenterPoint Energy said it is continuing to perform natural gas leak surveys in Mayflower and Vilonia, after working to secure nearly 100 natural gas leaks caused primarily, the company said, by uprooted trees.

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 found - 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 had been 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 a hospital. But the system that moved through the Plains, Midwest and South on Sunday produced tornadoes that struck several states, including also Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. Golf ball-sized hail was reported at Overland Park, Kan., and Trimble, Mo.

To the southeast, northern Louisiana and Mississippi were bracing for severe storms along with the possibility of flash flooding. The predictions prompted Barksdale Air Force Base near Bossier City, La., to cancel its air show on Sunday.

The National Weather Service said northern Alabama could see rain and flash flooding, while central and northern Georgia could see storms and heavy rain.

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 "packed like sardines" in the cellar.

"People were pulling off the highways and were just running in," she said.

Men held the cellar doors shut while the tornado's winds tried to rip them apart.

"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 in 2011, during an EF-2 tornado that followed nearly the same path.

At a news conference in the Philippines before calling Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, President Barack Obama sent his condolences and promised the government would help in the recovery.

"Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild as long as it takes," Mr. Obama said.


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