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. The city’s main trauma center said it was expecting at least 15 to 20 patients.
There were two 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 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, 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.
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.
The Little Rock Fire Department reported heavy damage and debris in western Little Rock and said firefighters had carried out rescue operations in the area.
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.”
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced that he was requesting assistance from the National Guard.
“Please stay off the roads and away from the affected areas to allow emergency responders to work,” Scott tweeted.
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.
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.
Two tornados touched down in Keokuk County in eastern Iowa late in the afternoon, a dispatch officer in county sheriff’s office said. One hit near Martinsburg and moved east toward Ollie, both small farm towns routhly 50 miles south of Iowa City, and the second was spotted near Keota. The extent of any damage was not immediately clear.
Dylan Dodson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Des Moines, said there were two confirmed tornadoes Friday afternoon in eastern Iowa but it was too early to estimate their size or how much damage they had caused. Poweshiek County sheriff’s deputies said one touched down in an empty field and there were no reports of injuries.
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.
Apart from Little Rock, the major population centers at high risk for storms starting Friday afternoon included Chicago; St. Louis; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
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.
In Iowa City, the University of Iowa canceled Friday’s watch party for fans who planned to gather for the women’s basketball Final Four game against South Carolina.
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.