At least 12 people died in Arkansas and Oklahoma after severe tornadoes slammed the south-central United States on Sunday. Emergency officials and rescue team are searching for survivors in the debris left by a powerful tornado that carved an 80-mile path of destruction, with more storms expected on Monday.
Arkansas was the hardest hit, with at least 10 people dead in central Faulkner County and four more across the state, for the first reported fatalities of this year’s U.S. tornado season, authorities said.
Two people were killed in Vilonia, a small town in Faulkner county in central Arkansas, and one person died when a tornado tore through Mayflower, 22 miles northwest of Little Rock, officials there said. At least one other person was killed in a tornado in the town of Quapaw, in the northeast corner of neighboring Oklahoma, according to Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Derek Derwin.
After hitting Quapaw, the tornado moved northward into Kansas and struck Baxter Springs, a city of about 4,200 residents about 5 miles away.
“Just looking at the damage, this may be one of the strongest that we’ve seen,” Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Monday. “And preliminarily – we haven’t done any records checking – but it looks like this is the largest loss of life that we’ve seen in one tornado incident since I’ve been governor.”
The storms boiled up after nearly a week of forecasts calling for severe weather, including a rare “high risk” warning from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.
A meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock said he was virtually certain the storm that hit Vilonia and nearby Mayflower would be rated as the nation’s strongest twister to date this year. The other time was in 2011, during an EF-2 tornado that followed nearly the same path and killed at least four people.
“It has the potential to be EF3 or greater,” meteorologist Jeff Hood said. 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.”
Tornadoes were also reported in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri on Sunday afternoon and evening, causing some damage but no known injuries, according to local officials and the weather service.
The first reported tornado Sunday touched down in a rural area in central in Nebraska. The weather service said it remained on the ground for only a short time, and there were no immediate reports of damage. Earlier Sunday afternoon, a strong line of storms moved through west-central Missouri, bringing winds that reached 70 mph hour near Chillicothe, Mo., that toppled some trees, says the Fox News.
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.