Tornado watches remained in place for Mississippi and Tennessee, with the National Weather Service warning of “widespread severe storms, including strong tornadoes, damaging winds and very large hail” over a large area including parts of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia.
In Arkansas, the worst-hit state during the weekend onslaught, the most severe weather appeared to have passed. But teams of National Guard troops and other rescue workers were faced with scenes of “utter and sheer devastation” as they moved through the affected areas, picking through the rubble of thousands of destroyed and damaged homes in the search for survivors.
Fourteen of the confirmed deaths came in Arkansas, where governor Mike Beebe announced a state of disaster in three counties. He warned several people were still unaccounted for and that the death toll could rise. “It’s devastating for the people who have lost property. It’s even more devastating for those who have lost loved ones,” he said.
Two children were reported to be among ten killed in Faulkner County. There were four other deaths elsewhere in the state, while two more were reported in Quapaw, Oklahoma, and Kinross, Iowa.
The small Arkansas towns of Mayflower and Vilonia received direct hits from one tornado estimated to be half a mile wide and carrying winds in excess of 135mph. It touched down soon after nightfall and left a trail of destruction almost 80 miles long.
Residents spoke of a deafening noise as the tornado approached. “It turned pitch black. I ran and got pillows to put over our heads and all hell broke loose,” Mark Ausbrooks, who was staying with relatives in Mayflower, said. “My parents’ home, it’s gone completely.”
In Vilonia, where three died in a tornado exactly three years ago, mayor James Firestone said the damage was much worse this time.
“Before, we had a lot of roofs blown off, fences blown down, that type of thing,” he said. “This time, houses are reduced to rubble, people’s belongings completely destroyed, scattered, and it’s a lot of debris to deal with. We have a big task in front of us trying to get this cleaned up.”
Brad McNew, police chief of the town, which has a population of 4,000, said the death toll would have been higher if residents had not heeded advice to head for tornado shelters.
“If you see the destruction that is here, even though we lost some lives, there’s many lives that were saved because of the storm warning,” he said.
US president Barack Obama sent his “deepest condolences” and promised government help to those in areas affected by the storms. “Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild, as long as it takes,” he said in Manila, on the Philippines leg of his Asian tour.
The tornado that struck Mayflower and Vilonia on Sunday night came two hours after another twister had moved through northern Oklahoma, destroying buildings in Quapaw and leaving one dead and at least six people injured. A spokesman said the town had been extensively damaged.
From Quapaw, the tornado moved north into Kansas and ripped apart buildings in Baxter Springs, where a number of injuries were reported, but no fatalities.
Another of Sunday’s tornadoes touched down close to Joplin, Missouri, where 161 people were killed in May 2011 during the worst tornado strike in the US for more than seven decades.