Death toll rises and roof collapses during concert as deadly tornadoes strike US
Up to 50 tornadoes were seen across southern and midwestern US states - and more severe weather is expected, as Alex Iszatt reports
A monster storm system has torn through the US, spawning deadly tornadoes that have killed at least 21 people and collapsed a theatre roof during a heavy metal concert.
Up to 50 tornadoes swept across at least eight states, destroying homes and businesses, stripping bark and limbs off trees, and leaving people trapped in the debris.
At least seven people have died in Tennessee's McNairy County, four in the small town of Wynne, Arkansas, four in Illinois, and three in nearby Sullivan, Indiana.
Stunned residents of Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people 50 miles west of Memphis, Tennessee, awoke on Saturday to find the high school's roof shredded and its windows blown out.
Debris and memories of regular life lay scattered inside the damaged shells of homes and strewn on lawns: clothing, insulation, roofing paper, toys, splintered furniture, a pickup truck with its windows shattered.
“I’m sad that my town has been hit so hard,” said Heidi Jenkins, a salon owner. “Our school is gone, my church is gone. I’m sad for all the people who lost their homes.”
In Belvidere, Illinois, a tornado collapsed the roof of the Apollo Theatre as 260 people attended a heavy metal concert, killing one person and injuring 28, five of them severely, officials said.
The Belvidere Police Department said the collapse occurred as a heavy storm rolled through the area and that calls began coming from the theatre at 7.48 pm.
Gabrielle Lewellyn, who had just entered the theatre when the tornado struck, told WTVO-TV: “The winds, when I was walking up to the building, it went like from zero to a thousand within five seconds.”
Some people rushed to lift the collapsed portion of the ceiling and pull people out of the rubble, said Ms Lewellyn, who wasn’t hurt.
“They dragged someone out from the rubble, and I sat with him and I held his hand and I was (telling him) ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do," Ms Lewellyn said.
Belvidere Fire Department Chief Shawn Schadle said 260 people were in the venue. He said first responders also rescued someone from an elevator and had to grapple with downed power lines outside the theatre.
The scene after the collapse was described by Belvidere Police Chief Shane Woody described as “chaos, absolute chaos”.
Three people died in Indiana's Sullivan County near the Illinois line, about 95 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
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 that several people were rescued from rubble overnight. There were reports of as many as 12 people injured, he said, and search-and-rescue teams combed damaged areas.
“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.”
Gas leaks were reported in the area, and the sheriff’s office ordered people to stay out to make way for emergency responders and utility workers.
In the Little Rock area, at least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, authorities said.
The tornado in Little Rock tore first through neighbourhoods in the western part of the Arkansas capital and shredded a small shopping centre that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, causing widespread damage and killing one person.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to help local responders.
Little Rock resident Niki Scott took cover in the bathroom after her husband called to warn her of a tornado. She could hear glass shattering and emerged to find that her house was one of the few on her street that didn’t have a tree 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.
Little Rock 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.
Joanna McFadden was at a nail salon with two other people when the tornado struck.
“The only way we knew the tornado was coming, the leaves were swirling, that’s the only way we knew, it looked like it was standing still,” Ms McFadden said. She and the others took shelter in the back.
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 President Joe Biden visited the Mississippi community of Rolling Fork, where tornadoes last week destroyed parts of town.
Tornadoes also caused damage in eastern Iowa, including one just west of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Television footage showed toppled power poles and roofs ripped off buildings and homes in the area.
It could take days to determine the exact number of tornadoes, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center. There were also hundreds of reports of large hail and damaging winds, he said.
“That’s a quite active day. But that’s not unprecedented,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands lost power because of the sprawling storm system that also brought wildfires to the southern Plains and blizzard conditions to the Upper Midwest, and left in its wake high winds. A threat of tornadoes and hail remained for the Northeast, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York.
More than 530,000 homes and businesses in the affected area lacked power at midday Saturday, over 200,000 of them in Ohio, according to PowerOutage.us.
Hail broke windows on cars and buildings northeast of Peoria, Illinois. And blizzard conditions whipped parts of Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin, cutting power to tens of thousands in the Twin Cities area. Parts of Interstate 29 were closed.
Nearly 100 new wildfires were reported Friday in Oklahoma, according to the state forest service, and firefighters hoped to gain ground against them Saturday. Fires were expected to remain a danger through the week.
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