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At least 3 dead as tornadoes sweep through midwestern, southern states

Tornado watches are in effect for more than 28 million people from around Chicago to the east of Dallas

A destructive tornado struck Little Rock on March 31, and several more tornadoes ripped across Iowa, leaving more than 28 million people under tornado watches. (Video: The Washington Post)
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At least three people died and dozens were injured as tornadoes swept through parts of Arkansas and Illinois, and an outbreak of severe storms moved across the central United States and the Mississippi Valley.

A “large and destructive tornado” struck Little Rock and elsewhere in Arkansas on Friday afternoon, killing at least two people, state officials said, and tearing through homes and other buildings.

There were two fatalities in Wynne, Ark., where pictures showed that neighborhoods and the town’s high school had sustained extensive damage, according to coroner Miles J. Kimble and a spokesperson for the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management.

More than 300,000 customers across the affected states were without power late Friday night, according to

In Belvidere, Ill., one person died and 28 others were injured when the roof of the Apollo Theatre collapsed after a storm swept through the area, the fire department said. Shawn Shadle, the city’s fire chief, said in a news briefing that approximately 260 people were at the theater at the time of the incident.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said on Twitter that he was in touch with officials and was directing available resources to the incident. A local resident described the scene as a “catastrophe” to The Washington Post. A video shot by a resident who lives three blocks from the theater shows part of the fallen roof and rescue crews.

Video shows extensive damage outside the Apollo Theater in Belvidere, Ill., on March 31 after severe weather hit the area. (Video: Mike Kämke)

Morbid Angel, the band scheduled to perform at the theater Friday night, was “sheltering in place,” according to an update posted on their Facebook page.

“Right now our focus is on making sure everyone in the venue tonight is ok and gets home,” the post said.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Chicago and the surrounding counties until 9 p.m. Central time, stating that wind gusts could be up to 90 mph and hail larger than golf balls was possible.

Images from the city of Covington in Tennessee showed roads littered with uprooted trees. The police department said the city was “impassable,” and the city’s mayor asked residents to remain indoors.

“Please stay home,” Mayor Jan Hensley said on Facebook. “Do not drive around looking. Power lines are down. We are trying to get cleaned up.”

Multiple strong tornadoes also hit Iowa, and thunderstorms began to develop explosively Friday afternoon from east of Des Moines to just east of Dallas.

Images and videos from Little Rock showed the violent, menacing funnel tearing through the area and leaving damage, including roofs ripped off, trees toppled and cars flipped. The Weather Service reported that the tornado probably rated EF3 on the 0-to-5 scale for intensity and that the environment would remain favorable for it to remain intense east of Little Rock. Nearly 82,000 customers were without power in Arkansas, according to utility tracker, as storms continued to sweep across the state.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) said she had activated the state’s National Guard. In an earlier tweet, the governor described “significant damage” in central Arkansas and said local authorities are assessing any injuries from the storm.

Baptist Health was treating 21 patients, five of them in critical condition, at two medical centers in the Little Rock area, spokeswoman Cara Wade said. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences had initially declared a Level 3 mass casualty event — indicating it expected large numbers of patients from the destructive tornado in the Little Rock area. But that was quickly downgraded to Level 1, a standby status, health system spokeswoman Leslie Taylor said, with only one patient with tornado-related injuries at UAMS Medical Center in Little Rock as of the early evening.

“It usually takes a few hours for more people to start coming in. In some parts of town, travel is a bit limited right now,” Taylor said. “More people may be found who need help.”

In photos: The scene as severe storms strike parts of Arkansas and Iowa

At 4:56 p.m. Central, a tornado emergency was declared for the cities of Parkin and Earle for a large confirmed tornado near the Arkansas border with Tennessee, until 5:30 p.m. Significant tornado damage was reported near Wynne, about 50 miles west of Memphis and a little over 100 miles northeast of Little Rock. “We need serious help in the town of Wynne, AR from all emergency personnel in near by towns,” tweeted storm chaser Brandon Osterhout.

Photos posted on social media showed Wynne High School destroyed and its football field flooded. Wynne Police Chief Richard Dennis told Region 8 News that there is “total destruction throughout the town.” Dennis added that dozens of people are trapped.

This same tornado was barreling east into western Tipton and northern Shelby counties in western Tennessee, with a warning in effect until 6 p.m. Central.

As the twister threatened the towns of Dixonville, Quito and Drummond in western Tennessee, the Weather Service declared a tornado emergency until 6 p.m. Central. The emergency was extended into the city of Covington until 6:30 p.m.

Around 7 p.m. Central, another large tornado formed near the intersection of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee and was tearing northeast about 25 miles to the south of Memphis near Hernando, Miss. by 7:45 p.m.

Numerous warnings for confirmed tornadoes were also issued east of Des Moines on Friday afternoon. Just before 4 p.m. Central, the Weather Service issued a warning for a “confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado” near Sigourney, Iowa — about 75 miles east of Des Moines — until 4:15 p.m. The warning was then extended farther to the northeast until 4:45 p.m. and the Weather Service cautioned “[t]here remains reports of 2 tornadoes on the ground in this area.” Storm chaser photos posted to Twitter appeared to confirm the pair.

Just to the north, another confirmed tornado was headed in the direction of Iowa City, including the University of Iowa, at 4:39 p.m. Central, the Weather Service reported, with a warning in effect until 5:15 p.m. Social media video from Coralville, just north of Iowa City, revealed vehicle damage, downed trees and damaged structures after the storm passed. A subsequent warning for a confirmed, large tornado about 30 miles east of Cedar Rapids was issued until 5:45 p.m.

The Weather Service also received multiple reports of confirmed tornadoes in western and central Illinois Friday afternoon and evening. Tornado damage was reported around Sherman, Ill., which is about 55 miles south of Peoria and just north of Springfield.

Through 7:40 p.m. Central, the Weather Service had issued scores of tornado warnings in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin. It had received 36 reports of tornadoes, mostly from Arkansas and Iowa, and more than 200 of reports of large hail, some as big as baseballs.

This latest rash of damaging tornadoes comes a week after a powerful tornado ripped through Mississippi, killing at least 25 people. On Friday, President Biden and first lady Jill Biden went to Rolling Fork, Miss., which was devastated by last week’s tornado. During the visit, Biden said he had authorized more access to federal resources for recovery efforts, including cash grants for people who lost their homes as well as funding to cover the costs of overtime for local emergency responders and debris removal.

“We’re not just here for today,” Biden said. “I’m determined that we’re going to leave nothing behind. We’re going to get it done for you.”

Tornado watches stretching from Chicago to just east of Dallas affected more than 28 million people, the Weather Service tweeted Friday afternoon.

The Storm Prediction Center issued a rare “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch for central and eastern Iowa, western Illinois, northern and central Missouri, and southwest Wisconsin until 8 p.m. Central time. “Parameters are favorable for the potential for strong/violent tornadoes and very large hail,” the center wrote.

It issued yet another particularly dangerous situation tornado watch for central Missouri and southern Arkansas until 8 p.m. Central, noting “a few intense tornadoes are likely.”

A third tornado watch was issued for northeast Texas and northwest Louisiana until 9 p.m. Central, while a fourth watch was added for southern Wisconsin and northeast Illinois until 10 p.m. Central. A fifth tornado watch, described as yet another particularly dangerous situation, was issued for northern Mississippi, northwest Alabama, and western and middle Tennessee until 1 a.m. Central. A sixth tornado watch was issued for parts of eastern Illinois, much of central Indiana and western Kentucky until 2 a.m. Central.

The watch zones include population centers such as Des Moines; Chicago; Springfield and Peoria, Ill.; Indianapolis; Shreveport, La.; St. Louis; Little Rock; Nashville; and Memphis. Evening commutes could be dangerous, air travel will be rocky, and widespread disruptions to social plans, transportation and commerce are inevitable.

Into Friday night, thunderstorms are expected to merge into an 800-mile-long line along a cold front, and they should march east toward Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville and Nashville. It’s unclear how much of a punch the thunderstorms will still be packing, but at least scattered instances of severe winds, as well as a few tornadoes, can be anticipated.

Very rarely is an area this large exposed to a severe weather hazard this widespread or great in magnitude. Residents should have multiple ways to receive severe weather warnings — whether through mobile devices, weather radios, or trusted television or internet sources — and review sheltering plans with loved ones. Particularly throughout this evening, nobody in the severe weather zone should be more than five minutes away from a safe sheltering location.

2023 has been a big year for tornados so far and April is expected to continue that trend as severe weather systems develop across the United States. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Tornado season is here. Here is what you need to know.

Areas affected

An expansive area of concern was plastered across outlook maps issued by the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center on Friday, including two Level 5 out of 5 “high risk” areas for extremely dangerous storms.

These two most threatened zones cover southeast Iowa, including Iowa City, northeast Missouri and west central Illinois, as well as east central Arkansas, northern Mississippi and southwest Tennessee, together with Memphis. Such high-risk zones are rare and reserved for the most severe weather situations. It’s been more than two years since the last high-risk issuance.

Surrounding the Level 5 high-risk zone, a Level 4 out of 5 risk of severe weather stretches from central Iowa all the way south to just north of Greenville, Miss. — where widespread dangerous storms are probable. Surrounding that zone is a Level 3 out of 5 “enhanced risk,” which creeps as far east as Middle Tennessee and as far north as northeast Iowa and southern Wisconsin. Huntsville, Nashville, Louisville and Chicago are in the enhanced zone where severe storms will be numerous.

A Level 2 out of 5 risk — with more scattered severe storms — spans from Kansas City, Kan., and northeast Texas all the way to Milwaukee, Columbus and Chattanooga. The western periphery of this zone represents uncertainty with respect to where storms will initially fire; in case they crop up an hour or two ahead of schedule, they would be farther west. The eastern edge of this zone marks low confidence in how far the storms will march before meeting their eventual overnight demise.

Overall, more than 85 million Americans face an elevated threat of dangerous storms.

Kasha Patel contributed to the report.