By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
VILONIA, Ark. — Rescuers continued to move through parts of Arkansas on Monday seeking survivors of a deadly tornado that tore through the region, killing at least 16 and injuring dozens.
The hardest-hit area was in Vilonia, outside of Little Rock, where officials said 10 people died: eight adults and two children. Six others died in two other Arkansas counties and one person died after a tornado struck Oklahoma before crossing into Kansas on Sunday for a total death toll of 17.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it is one of the most devastating tornadoes we’ve had,” Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe told reporters Monday morning. “Arkansans are resilient and neighbors help neighbors. We’re seeing that here.”
The governor said that 16 deaths have been confirmed, but he noted that the number could rise as rescuers move through the towns. There is no count for those missing, he noted.
“Rescue efforts are continuing,” the governor said. “We have severe damage in Vilonia and Mayflower, but there are rural areas as well. “This is an on-going process. All resources that need to be dispatched will be dispatched.”
The tornado that slammed into Vilonia, about 10 miles west of the capital, grew to about half a mile in width. It was among a rash of tornadoes and heavy storms that moved across the nation’s center and South on Sunday during the tornado season that typically runs from about mid-March through June.
The National Weather Service on Monday warned that destructive storms, including more tornadoes, damaging winds and very large hail, would continue to strike in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana. Storm watches and warnings were posted throughout the area.
There was no immediate estimate of the ferocity of the tornado that hit Arkansas, but it could hit an EF3, meaning it carried winds of more than 136 mph, Chris Buonanno of the National Weather Service in Little Rock told the Los Angeles Times.
“We’re still looking at the damage,” and two teams are on the ground as well, he said. He said that early reports showed that there could be a long swath of damage of at least 20 miles through the state. That figure could increase as new data come in, he said.
At a news conference in the Philippines, President Barack Obama sent his condolences and promised the government would help in the recovery.
“Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild as long as it takes,” Obama said.
Beebe said he had talked with federal officials Monday morning and they were promising help.
Vilonia was last hit by a tornado three years ago when at least four people were reported dead.
One of the buildings destroyed in 2011 was a school that was rebuilt. On Sunday, the latest tornado hit the building again, causing extensive damage, officials said.
“My heart is heavy this morning as we continue to uncover the devastation of last night’s storms,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR). “We’ve seen the loss of lives, homes and property, but not the loss of spirit. The people of Arkansas have come together to help our friends and neighbors in need. I stand ready to help those impacted and ensure that our state has the resources it needs to rebuild, recover, and come back stronger than before. To all those affected, we’re praying for you.”
In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback will visit Baxter Springs on Monday, which was also hit by a tornado Sunday that damaged or destroyed about 70 homes and up to 25 businesses and injured 34 people, nine requiring hospitalization.
Photo via AFP