Dozens dead after tornadoes tear path through US South and Midwest

The storms tore a path through the Arkansas capital, ripped the roof off a packed concert venue in Illinois, and caused widespread damage throughout the region.

Confirmed or suspected tornadoes in at least eight states destroyed homes and businesses, tore up trees, and lay waste to neighbourhoods across a broad swathe of the country.

At least nine people were killed in one Tennessee county, four in the small town of Wynne, Arkansas, three in Sullivan, Indiana, and four in Illinois.

Other deaths from the storms that hit Friday night into Saturday were reported in Alabama and Mississippi, along with one near Little Rock, Arkansas, where city officials said more than 2,600 buildings were in one tornado’s path.

In Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people 50 miles west of Memphis, Tennessee, the high school’s roof was torn off overnight and its windows blown out, while huge trees lay on the ground and dozens of homes were decimated.

Severe Weather in Iowa
The path of a tornado is seen through a building on James Street in Coralville, Iowa (Iowa City Press-Citizen/AP/PA)

Debris lay scattered inside the shells of homes and on lawns: clothing, insulation, toys, splintered furniture, a pick-up truck with its windows shattered.

Ashley Macmillan said she, her husband and their children huddled with their dogs in a small bathroom as a tornado passed, “praying and saying goodbye to each other, because we thought we were dead”.

A falling tree seriously damaged their home, but they were unhurt.

“We could feel the house shaking, we could hear loud noises, dishes rattling. And then it just got calm,” she said.

Recovery is already under way, with workers using chainsaws and bulldozers to clear the area and utility crews restoring power.

Tornado damage
Family and neighbours scour the debris after a tornado tore through a farm in Wellman, Iowa (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)/The Gazette/AP/PA)

Nine people died in Tennessee’s McNairy County, east of Memphis along the Mississippi border.

Governor Bill Lee drove to the county on Saturday to tour the destruction and comfort residents. He said the storm capped the “worst” week of his time as governor, coming days after a school shooting in Nashville that killed six people including a family friend whose funeral he and his wife attended earlier in the day.

He said: “It’s terrible what has happened in this community, this county, this state. But it looks like your community has done what Tennessean communities do, and that is rally and respond.”

In Memphis, police spokesman Christopher Williams said three deaths are believed to be weather-related – two children and an adult who died when a tree fell on a house.

Tornado damage
An entire neighbourhood was flattened in Sullivan, Indiana (Doug McSchooler/AP/PA)

Tennessee officials have warned that the same weather conditions are expected to return on Tuesday.

In Belvidere, Illinois, part of the roof of the Apollo Theatre collapsed as about 260 people were attending a heavy metal concert. A 50-year-old man was pulled from the rubble.

Concertgoer Gabrielle Lewellyn told WTVO-TV: “I sat with him and I held his hand and I was (telling him), ‘It’s going to be okay.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do.”

The man was dead by the time emergency workers arrived. Officials said 40 others were hurt, including two with life-threatening injuries.

Arkansas wreckage
Two people stand in front of a destroyed business in Wynne, Arkansas (AP)

In Crawford County, Illinois, three people were killed and eight others injured after a tornado hit around New Hebron.

Sheriff Bill Rutan said 60 to 100 families were displaced. “We’ve had emergency crews digging people out of their basements because the house is collapsed on top of them, but luckily they had that safe space to go to,” he said.

That was not far from where three people were killed in Indiana’s Sullivan County.

Sullivan mayor Clint Lamb said at a news conference that an area south of the county seat of about 4,000 “is essentially unrecognisable right now”, and several people were rescued overnight. There were reports of as many as 12 people injured, he said.

Severe Weather
The gym of Crestview Elementary School, Tennessee (Daily Memphian/AP)

“Quite frankly, I’m really, really shocked there isn’t more as far as human issues,” he said, adding that recovery “is going to be a very long process”.

In the Little Rock area, at least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, authorities said. Mayor Frank Scott said that 2,100 homes and businesses were in the tornado’s path, but that no assessment had been done on how many were damaged.

The National Weather Service said the tornado was a high-end EF3 twister with wind speeds up to 165mph and a path as long as 25 miles.

Severe Weather Mississippi
Motorists pass by a destroyed SUV that was thrown into a ditch along South Gloster in Tupelo, Mississippi (The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal/AP/PA)

Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and activated the US National Guard to help local responders.

A suspected tornado killed a woman in northern Alabama’s Madison County, said county official Mac McCutcheon. And in northern Mississippi’s Pontotoc County, officials confirmed one death and four injuries.

The storms struck just hours after US President Joe Biden visited the Mississippi community of Rolling Fork, where tornadoes last week destroyed parts of town.

It could take days to determine the exact number of tornadoes, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Centre. There were also hundreds of reports of large hail and damaging winds, he said.

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