The death toll rose to 32 Sunday after a batch of ferocious storms and tornadoes devastated communities across the American South and Midwest, while parts of the Southern Plains braced for their own round of severe weather.
The storm outbreak Friday that walloped the country spawned more than 50 tornado reports in at least seven states, where tornadoes crushed homes and businesses, ripped roofs off buildings, splintered trees and sent vehicles flying.
Wynne, Arkansas – where at least four people died – was cleaved in half by one such tornado, leaving a line of destruction from the city’s western limit to its eastern, according to Mayor Jennifer Hobbs, who told CNN Sunday, “We’re just gonna need all the help that we can (get) to help these families recover.” About 100 miles southwest, another person died in North Little Rock.
Deaths have been confirmed across a wide swath of states, with multiple victims in Arkansas, Indiana and Tennessee, where the statewide death toll rose to 15 Sunday, officials said. Three of the deaths were in Memphis: Two children and one adult were found dead after police responded to calls about trees that had fallen on homes, the Memphis Police Department said in a news release.
Nine others died in McNairy County, Tennessee, County Mayor Larry Smith confirmed to CNN Sunday. The storm “crossed our county completely from one side to the other,” Sheriff Guy Buck told CNN Saturday evening as authorities continued to search collapsed buildings.
There were at least five deaths in Indiana and four people killed in Illinois, including one person who died after the roof of the Apollo Theatre in Belvidere collapsed Friday while more than 200 people were gathered for a heavy metal concert. State and local officials also reported one death in Alabama, Mississippi and Delaware.
The latest spate of damaging weather across the South and Midwest comes just a week after a severe tornado-spawning storm walloped the Southeast, killing at least another 26 people and destroying much of Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
On Sunday, the threat shifted to the Southern Plains, where nearly 13 million people in north Texas, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area, face an enhanced – or level 3 of 5 – risk for severe weather in the afternoon and early evening hours, the Storm Prediction Center said.
The Dallas Office of Emergency Management activated its sirens for the city “due to large hail” as flights were grounded at Dallas airports, according to officials.
Both the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field Airport issued ground stops as severe weather rolled into Texas, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Flights were temporarily grounded but have since resumed, the FAA said.
The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for parts of Oklahoma and Texas until 11 pm CDT. There are over 10 million people included in the watch, including areas like Dallas, Forth Worth and Waco.
“Several tornadoes are possible, a couple of which may be strong,” the center said in an update Sunday, adding there was a 10 percent or greater probability of tornadoes between EF-2 and EF-5 strength within 25 miles around the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.
Scattered severe thunderstorms are expected across central to northeast Texas between 2 p.m. and 11 p.m. CT, the Storm Prediction Center said. Hail the size of golf balls and damaging wind gusts of up to 70 mph could also pose a threat.
The second tornado watch of the day was issued for parts of northern Louisiana and northeast Texas and will last until 1 a.m. CDT. The watch includes areas like Tyler, Texas and Shreveport, Louisiana.
Families in small town are ‘completely devastated’
In addition to leaving trails of destruction, storms have also knocked out power to battered communities. More than 25,000 customers in Arkansas remained impacted by outages as of Sunday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.US, with hundreds of thousands more without power across the South and Northeast, including more than 92,000 in Pennsylvania and more than 50,000 in Ohio.
The governors of Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Arkansas all announced emergency or disaster declarations in their states to help free up immediate assistance for impacted counties. And on Sunday, President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration for Arkansas ahead of a trip by FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to survey the damage and determine needs on the ground.
The federal declaration frees up federal resources, per the White House, to aid those impacted in Cross County, Lonoke County and Pulaski County, which encompasses the city of Little Rock, where heavy damage but no fatalities had been reported as of Saturday afternoon.
The National Weather Service reported that an EF-3 tornado had roared through Pulaski and Lonoke counties in Arkansas with estimated peak winds of 165 mph.
Efforts are now focused on recovery and rebuilding, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said. Nearly 2,600 structures in Little Rock were impacted and around 50 people were sent to hospitals, according to the mayor.
“It’s unbelievable anytime that you see, literally, vehicles flying across the air, structures being flattened,” the mayor said. “Many people were not at their homes. If they were, it would have been a massacre,” Scott Jr. told CNN.
Mayor Hobbs of Wynne, Arkansas – home to about 8,000 residents – watched the twister that hit her city Friday as it approached from a distance.
“I don’t know how to put it into words. It was devastating. It’s much different seeing it firsthand than it is when you see it on TV hit other communities,” Hobbs said.
Some houses in Wynne – home to about 8,000 residents – were completely crushed into piles of wood while others had their roofs ripped off, exposing the interiors of homes littered with storm debris, drone footage provided to CNN shows.
“We have a lot of families that are completely devastated. Have no home at all, no belongings survived,” the mayor added.
The aftermath of the devastating tornadoes is “unbelievably tragic” for the state, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Sunday after touring damage in Wynne.
Sanders also said she would make efforts to expedite aid to those in need.
“The state will be there every step of the way, providing resources and making sure that they have everything that they need,” Sanders said.
Early warning of storms saved lives, sheriff says
Janice Pieterick and her husband, Donald Lepczyk, were in their RV in Hohenwald, Tennessee, when they got the alert of an incoming tornado and rushed to her daughter’s home across the yard, CNN affiliate WTVF reported. The tornado hit minutes later.
The family hurried into the bathroom where they huddled together as the storm roared outside.
“We made her and the kids get into the bathtub because that’s supposed to be the safest place. And we just all hunkered down because all the doors blew out. Double doors in the front, double doors in the back, all the glass in the windows. It all blew out at once,” Pieterick said.
Pieterick said the whole house shook. “You can literally feel it moving. Lifting up. That’s when we thought we were going, too,” she said.
In nearby McNairy County, Sheriff Buck said the death toll could have been much higher if residents had not heeded early warnings and sought out proper shelter.