Tornado outbreak batters Arkansas; several states in South, Midwest face deluge of severe weather

A tornado outbreak caused widespread havoc Friday evening, killing four and injuring dozens as federal forecasters warned of rare twister emergencies and confirmed tornadoes across several states.

One tornado ripped through neighborhoods on the west side of Little Rock, Arkansas claiming at least one life, the Associated Press reported. It destroyed homes and apartment buildings, overturned vehicles and prompted search and rescue efforts.

In Belvidere, Illinois, the roof of the Apollo Theater collapsed on heavy metal concertgoers as a storm swept through the area, causing multiple injuries, reported the Rockford Register Star, a USA TODAY Network property. One person died and 28 were injured, officials said late Friday. Dozens of ambulances were called to the scene as emergency responders cared for the wounded.

Belvidere Fire Department Chief Shawn Schadle said 260 people were in the venue at the time. He said first responders also rescued someone from an elevator and had to grapple with downed power lines outside the theater.

Belvidere Police Chief Shane Woody described the scene after the collapse as “chaos, absolute chaos.”

Another tornado ripped through Wynne, in eastern Arkansas, killing two, trapping others in debris and causing widespread damage. More than seven tornadoes and large hail were confirmed by the weather service across Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, and Tennessee.

The destructive weather came as President Joe Biden toured the aftermath of a deadly tornado that struck in Mississippi one week ago and promised the government would help the area recover.

Friday’s storm threats will continue throughout the evening, with the National Weather Service warning supercell storms increasing the threat of tornadoes across east central Arkansas near the Mississippi and Tennessee borders. Residents were urged to take covers in basements and interior rooms away from windows.

The storms sped across the Mississippi Valley Friday just a week after another tornado outbreak killed 21 people in Mississippi, including a long-track twister that destroyed much of Rolling Fork and brought President Joe Biden to the community on Friday.

Forecasters also warn that the Mississippi Valley will face another round of severe storms and a potential tornado outbreak on Tuesday.

Is a tornado watch or warning worse?: What to know about preparing for these violent storms

READ MORE: Bad tornado season in US is set to get worse

Tornado emergency in Arkansas

Dozens were injured as a tornado roared through Little Rock during one of several “tornado emergencies” Friday as the powerful storm system moved across the Mississippi River valley. A tornado emergency is issued when a severe threat to human life or catastrophic damage is imminent or ongoing.

The Little Rock Fire Department reported heavy damage and debris. 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 conditions.

Major Frank Scott Jr. tweeted that city officials were aware of 24 who had been hospitalized, and said property damage was “extensive.”

Earlier in the afternoon, he had requested assistance from the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders activated 100 members of the state’s guard to respond to damage throughout the state.

Sanders tweeted: “Significant damage has occurred in Central Arkansas….Praying for all those who were and remain in the path of this storm. Arkansans must continue to stay weather aware as storms are continuing to move through.”

The interior of the store is damaged after a severe storm swept through Little Rock, Ark., Friday, March 31, 2023.

The interior of the store is damaged after a severe storm swept through Little Rock, Ark., Friday, March 31, 2023.

The weather service issued a separate tornado emergency late Friday afternoon for the towns of Parkin and Earle in eastern Arkansas, when the tornado hit Wynne. The tornado prompted emergency responders to try to close a portion of Interstate 55 at Marion, just west of Memphis.

The tornado destroyed buildings, damaged Wynne High School, flipped cars and shredded rooftops reported the Commercial Appeal, a USA TODAY Network paper in Memphis.

The twisters were moving at speeds of 55 to 60 mph.

By 11:00 pm Eastern Time, more than 300,000 customers were out of electricity across eight states as the storms moved east with 60-70 mph winds. More than 100,000 customers were without electricity in Illinois, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages. The website reported outages as high as 80,000 customers in Arkansas earlier in the evening. Outages were also reported in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee and Iowa.

Tornadoes cause damage in Iowa, Illinois and Tennessee

In Clinton County, Iowa, the Sheriff’s office asked people to stay home after “a strong storm system” moved through. The agency reported a house had collapsed on people.

In Charlotte, Iowa, a storm damaged a 10,000 gallon propane tank, with wind concerns prompting authorities to evacuate about half the town’s 400 residents, reported the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network.

PHOTOS: Iowa City area tornado damage

Storms also caused damage in Eastern Iowa, the Register reported, with residents working to help neighbors salvage belongings from storm-damaged homes in the Hills and a shelter being set up in Coralville for people who lost homes.

In Covington, Tennessee, the city’s police department posted on Facebook that the city was “impassable,” the Commercial Appeal reported. Multiple homes and structures were also damaged in Tipton County.

Late into the evening, strong winds of 60 – 70 mph were reported across much of the region. At one point the weather service office in Memphis reported losing electricity and operating on a generator as storms continued to hammer the area.

Tornado surveys

Experts in weather service field offices throughout the region plan to begin tornado damage surveys early Saturday morning. They’ll start the process of determining the magnitude of the tornadoes and the time and length they were on the ground.

early warnings

On Friday morning, an estimated 89 million people in at least 15 states – from Texas to Alabama in the South all the way up north to Wisconsin and Michigan – were warned of a “high risk” from the “explosive” storms, with a chance for violent, long-track tornadoes. It was the first time in two years the center had issued a “high risk” warning, and this time there were two.

On Friday, two rare "high risk"  zones for severe weather were issued by the Storm Prediction Center, one centered near Memphis and the other on the border between Iowa and Illinois.  It's the first time in more than two years the SPC has issued a high risk.

On Friday, two rare “high risk” zones for severe weather were issued by the Storm Prediction Center, one centered near Memphis and the other on the border between Iowa and Illinois. It’s the first time in more than two years the SPC has issued a high risk.

Meanwhile, heavy snow and strong winds were producing blizzard-like conditions in South Dakota.

A car is upturned in a Kroger parking lot after a severe storm swept through Little Rock, Ark., Friday, March 31, 2023.

A car is upturned in a Kroger parking lot after a severe storm swept through Little Rock, Ark., Friday, March 31, 2023.

What is a tornado emergency?

A step above a tornado warning, issued by the National Weather Service in “exceedingly rare” situations, when:

A severe threat to human life or catastrophic damage is imminent or ongoing.

Visual or radar evidence such as a reliable source confirms a tornado or a radar picks up the signature of a ball of debris inside the tornado.

Biden visited tornado-ravaged Mississippi town

President Joe Biden on Friday visited areas severely damaged by tornadoes last week. Rolling Fork and nearby Silver City, Mississippi, lost around 300 homes and businesses, with hundreds of other buildings badly damaged.

The president and first lady Jill Biden surveyed tornado damage, met with affected homeowners and first responders and received an operational briefing from federal and state officials.

They were joined by Gov. Tate Reeves, Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Rep. Bennie Thompson.

Biden announced the federal government will cover the total cost of the state’s emergency measures for the next 30 days, including overtime for first responders and debris cleanup.

Is a tornado watch or warning worse?: What to know about preparing for these violent storms

Tornado preparedness tips

It’s always important to have an emergency plan in place in the event of severe weather, including designating a “safe place” in your home, preferably away from windows and in an interior room, the weather service says.

Keeping handy supplies like flashlights, batteries, food, water, clothes and shoes

Have multiple ways to get updates, including push alerts, local TV reports, weather apps and a NOAA weather radio.

“I think the No. 1 message that people need to have is that they need to be prepared,” said Pam Knox, director of the University of Georgia Weather Network. “Don’t rely on outdoor sirens as a warning. Instead, have a weather radio or smartphone at the ready.

“And know where you’re going to go if you hear a tornado warning,” she said.

It’s been a bad start to the USA’s tornado season

With 311 tornadoes through Thursday, the US has already seen the third-most-active start to a year on record.

“We should be at about 200 tornadoes for today’s date,” Victor Gensini, associate professor at Northern Illinois University, told USA TODAY. “So we’re running about 100 tornadoes above average, and we have been the entire year.”

READ MORE: Bad tornado season in the US is set to get worse

US weather watches and warnings

Blizzard warning issued in Plains, upper Great Lakes

The same storm system is expected to produce a band of heavy snow, with blizzard conditions possible from the central Plains to the upper Great Lakes region from Friday to Saturday, Larson said.

The weather service issued a blizzard warning from Friday afternoon through Saturday morning for a large swath of South Dakota and neighboring states.

Some spots in South Dakota could pick up as much as 20 inches of snow from the storm, the weather service said.

More winter weather in the Northwest

Meanwhile in parts of Oregon and Washington, a winter storm warning is in effect through Sunday, with snow accumulations up to 48 inches possible at

higher elevations in the Cascades, and winds of up to 40 mph.

Winter storm map

National weatherradar

More coverage from USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press, Commercial Appeal and Des Moines Register.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Friday Tornado outbreaks: Tornado emergencies; damage in Little Rock

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