LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A tornado raced through Little Rock and surrounding areas Friday, splintering homes, overturning vehicles and tossing trees and debris on roadways as people raced for shelter. There were early reports at least two dozen people hurt, some critically.
Another tornado hit the town of Wynne in the eastern part of the state near the Tennessee border, and officials reported widespread damage there including destroyed homes and downed trees.
There were more confirmed twisters in Iowa, damaging hail fell in Illinois and wind-whipped grass fires blazed in Oklahoma, part of a massive storm system threatening a broad swath of the country that is home to some 85 million people in the South and Midwest.
The destructive weather came as President Joe Biden toured the aftermath of a deadly tornado that struck in Mississippi a 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.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock was operating at a mass casualty level and preparing for up to 20 patients, spokesperson Leslie Taylor said. 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.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who announced that he was requesting assistance from the National Guard, tweeted in the evening that officials were aware of 24 people who had been hospitalized in the city but no fatalities at the moment.
"Property damage is extensive and we are still responding,” he said.
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 Little Rock 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.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and said there was “significant damage” in the central part of the state.
“Praying for all those who were and remain in the path of this storm,” she tweeted. “Arkansans must continue to stay weather aware as storms are continuing to move through.”
Also hit was the town of Wynne, about 50 miles west of Memphis, Tennessee, which Sanders said saw “widespread damage” from a tornado.
City Councilmember Lisa Powell Carter told AP by phone that 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.”
Police Chief Richard Dennis told WHBQ-TV that the city suffered “total destruction” and multiple people were trapped.
Nearly 70,000 customers in Arkansas lost power, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages.
About 32,000 were without electricity in neighboring Oklahoma, where where 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 near the suburb of Edmond.
More outages were reported in Kansas, Missouri and Texas.
Multiple tornadoes were reported moving through parts of eastern Iowa, with sporadic damage to homes, barns and other buildings.
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.
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.
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.
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 including tornadoes, saying the conditions are similar to those a week ago that unleashed a devastating twister that killed at least 21 people in Mississippi.
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center forecast called for 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.
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.
Last Friday night, a vicious tornado in Mississippi killed at least 21 people, injured dozens and flattened entire blocks as it carved a path of destruction for more than an hour. About 2,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
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.
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.
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, and Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.