A tornado plowed through Arkansas’ capital and surrounding areas Friday afternoon, reducing rooftops to splinters, toppling vehicles and tossing debris on roadways as people raced for shelter, part of a monster storm system that tore through the South and Midwest.
At least two people were killed in the northeast Arkansas city of Wynne, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed in a Friday evening news briefing.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. reported on Twitter Friday evening that at least 24 people had been hospitalized with storm-related injuries. He added that officials were “not aware of any fatalities…at this time.”
He described the property damage as “extensive.”
The roof of a theater in Belvidere, Illinois, collapsed Friday night during a concert amid gusty winds. Video from CBS Chicago showed debris lying in the street outside the Apollo Theatre, with firefighters and ambulances on scene. Cell phone video captured the damage from inside the structure.
The Belvidere Fire Department reported that one person died and 28 were injured in the building collapse. Five of those injuries were considered severe and 18 were moderate, the fire department said.
There were 260 people in the building at the time of the collapse, the fire department reported.
As of late Friday night, no one was unaccounted for, the fire department said.
The bands Morbid Angel, Revocation and Skeletal Remains were holding a concert at the venue Friday night, according to Apollo’s website. It’s unclear which of the bands were playing when the collapse occurred. Morbid Angel later posted on its Facebook page that the show was canceled “due to a tornado that hit the venue.”
“My administration is closely monitoring the roof collapse at the Apollo Theatre in Belvidere tonight,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker tweeted.
Belvidere is located about 70 miles northwest of Chicago.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock was operating at a mass casualty level and expecting at least 15 to 20 patients from the tornado, spokesperson Leslie Taylor said. Several people had already been transported to the medical center, but an exact count was not immediately available.
Mark Hulsey, a special projects manager for Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock, said at least one person was in critical condition. The county’s unincorporated areas saw structural damage from the tornado but crews haven’t yet encountered any buildings that were “flattened or completely destroyed,” Hulsey said.
Passengers and airport employees at Clinton National Airport in Little Rock took shelter in bathrooms. And aerial footage showed several rooftops were torn from homes in Little Rock and nearby Benton.
More than 111,000 customers were without power in Illinois Friday evening, along with over 74,000 customers in Arkansas, according to the utility tracking website PowerOutage.us.
Sanders activated 100 members of the Arkansas National Guard to help local authorities respond to the damage throughout the state. 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 sheriff’s office for Pulaski County, which includes the Little Rock metropolitan area, tweeted Friday that “tornadoes have affected many areas of Pulaski County.”
“Do not stop to survey damage,” it wrote. “If you are traveling home you may have to take an alternate route.”
Tornadoes have affected many areas of Pulaski County. First responders are on scene in the Rodney Parham and Jacksonville areas (as seen in the picture). Do not stop to survey damage. If you are traveling home you may have to take an alternate route. #PCSONEWS pic.twitter.com/siH2PPJwck
— Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office (@SheriffPulaski) March 31, 2023
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.
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.
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.
Massive storms brewing over at least 15 states in the Midwest and southern U.S. on Friday had meteorologists urging people to brace for dangerous weather, saying the conditions are similar to those a week ago that unleashed a devastating twister that killed at least 21 people in Mississippi.
The “intense supercell thunderstorms ” predicted for Friday afternoon are only expected to become more common, especially in Southern states, as temperatures rise around the world.
The destructive weather came as President Biden toured the aftermath of the deadly tornado that struck in Mississippi one week ago and promised the government would help the area recover.
Northern Illinois meteorology professor and tornado expert Victor Gensini said Friday’s atmospheric setup is similar to the conditions that were present during Mississippi’s deadly storm.
The hazardous forecast is 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.
In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem ordered state executive branch offices to be closed Friday in parts of the state, as freezing rain, snow and high winds were expected. Many counties were under blizzard or ice storm warnings.
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.
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