Tornados Ravage Midwest, Leaving Over A Dozen Dead

One of the first tornados of the year wreaked havoc in the northern suburbs of Little Rock, Ark. As Michael Hibblen of Little Rock's KUAR reports, more than a dozen people have died.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. Several states in the Southeast are facing tornado watches and warnings today after a series of tornadoes left a path of destruction in Oklahoma and Arkansas last night. At least 15 people are dead after a twister ripped through two towns outside of Little Rock. Rescue crews are still searching for victims in Vilonia and Mayflower. Michael Hibblen, with member station KUAR, spent the day it in Mayflower and he sent this report.

MICHAEL HIBBLEN, BYLINE: Driving between Little Rock and Mayflower, traffic slows to a crawl in the place along Interstate 40 where vehicles remain flipped over with wheels in the air. Trees that were in the path the tornado were ripped apart. Metal signs are mangled and some buildings in the area are now piles of rubble.

Mayflower locals like Randy Jones have been sharing stories about where they were when it hit.

RANDY JONES: We was at, all of us, at my brother's house in the basement. The kids was kind of in the crawl space when the tornado come through. You could just kind of feel it. The noise is like everybody always says, it's like a freight train and it just kind of - you could feel the walls kind of suction. We was fortunate to get out of it.

HIBBLEN: Randy Holland is mayor of Mayflower, a town of about 1,600 people.

MAYOR RANDY HOLLAND: I was actually watching it on my back porch and I saw it come across. This thing was so wide and I think the thing that still sticks in my mind is the sound it made. Everybody says it's like a train. It was kind of like that but it was also a grinding noise. You could just hear things grinding up. I'll never forget that noise as long as I live. Also it almost just sucked the wind. You could feel it actually sucking wind. It was crazy.

HIBBLEN: This morning, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe met with emergency officials to tour a neighborhood that suffered the worst damage.

GOVERNOR MIKE BEEBE: It's too early to estimate the total damages and I suspect it'll be a number of days. Right now, the preliminary work is primary focused on search and rescue and then security for the rest of the people.

HIBBLEN: The tornado is estimated to have been about a half mile wide as it cut a path through Mayflower and the nearby town of Vilonia, which also saw widespread destruction.

BEEBE: We've obviously got a lot of experience with tornados. And any tornado is bad, particularly if it's a direct hit on something. But just looking at the damage, this may be one of the strongest that we've seen. And preliminarily, we haven't done any records check, but it looks like this is the largest loss of life that we've seen in one tornado incident since I've been governor.

HIBBLEN: President Obama also spoke with local leaders, offering assistance from the federal government. Meanwhile, rescue crews are going from house to house in affected areas checking for more victims.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Hibblen in Little Rock.

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