Little Rock, Arkansas: Tornadoes ripped through the south-central United States on Sunday, killing at least 18 people in Arkansas and Oklahoma and wiping out entire neighbourhoods, according to officials, as rescue workers searched in darkness for survivors.
TV footage from Faulkner County in Arkansas showed houses ripped off their foundations, with cars toppled on top of the rubble.
‘It’s chaos right now,’’ the mayor of the Arkansas town of Velonia, James Firestone, told CNN as emergency crews used searchlights to comb through the debris in some of the hardest-hit areas.
Carnage: tornado damage in Mayflower, Arkansas. Photo: James Bryant, AP
The central part of the town of 4000 ‘‘seems like it’s completely levelled. There’s a few buildings partially standing, gas lines spewing. Fire lines down. We’ve had some casualties.’’
Police chief Brad McNew told US television tornado damage had rendered his town unrecognisable.
"It's houses completely down to the foundations," he told NBC.
Volunteers and firemen gather in storm-hit Quapaw, Oklahoma, on Sunday evening. Photo: AP
Rescuers had worked through the night using searchlights in blacked-out areas as they sifted through mountains of rubble searching for survivors, he said.
The twisters tore through the region on Sunday and continued overnight into Monday. They are forecast to threaten much of the region throughout Tuesday.
McNew said there was not yet a final tally of casualties in his town of just 4000 people.
A photographer watches the storm pass through Vinson, Oklahoma, late on Sunday. Further severe storms were forecast for Monday. Photo: Reuters
He said, however, the toll would surely have been far worse, if not for emergency sirens that warned citizens of the oncoming twister.
"The storm warnings went out fairly early," he said.
"I went to a tornado shelter myself with my family which was a couple miles away from where we were at. A lot of people in the community were there. And so, it did work," he said.
"If you see the destruction that is here, even though we've lost some lives, there's many lives that was saved because of the storm warnings."
Twisters also devastated large sections of the town of Mayflower, population 2300, just northwest of the Arkansas state capital Little Rock.
"Tonight, I walked around what was only hours earlier a thriving neighbourhood that is now gone. . . many homes are completely gone except the foundation," US Representative Tim Griffin said.
Officials warned that the system was likely to spawn additional storms on Monday as it moved across the South. The National Weather Service predicted "widespread severe storms, including strong tornadoes" affecting Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
One person died when a tornado tore through Mayflower, 35 kilometres north-west of Little Rock at about 7.30pm, officials there said.
The tornado passed through the east side of town, tearing up trees and bringing down powerlines, making it difficult for the emergency services to find stricken areas in the darkness, and forcing authorities to shut down Interstate 40.
"It's extremely hazardous here right now," said Will Elder, an alderman in the city of 2300 people. "The power lines are down, roads are blocked and they will have to proceed with caution."
At least one person was killed in a tornado in a small Oklahoma town in the north-east corner of the state, according to Ottawa County Sheriff's Department spokesman Derek Derwin.
Media and the National Weather Service reported that two people were killed.
That twister was spotted in Quapaw, 322 kilometres north-east of Oklahoma City at about 5.45pm, according to the weather service. An Ottawa County, Oklahoma, police dispatcher said a search and rescue effort was underway in Quapaw, but could not confirm reports of fatalities.
Local media reported another fatality in Iowa.
Tornado watch continues
And more big twisters were expected as violent thunder and hail storms moved through a large swath of the south, from Texas to Tennessee, forecasters said on Monday.
Tornadoes struck the region on Sunday evening, flipping cars, ripping up homes and uprooting trees.
The National Weather Service warned of the threat of "a severe weather outbreak" beginning late on Monday, affecting several states, including Mississippi, Tennessee and those on the Central Gulf Coast.
"Numerous tornadoes are expected, some of which could be intense," the NWS said.
"Very large hail and damaging straight line winds are also likely."
Reuters, New York Times, AFP