Deadly Storms Rip Through Southern States

Over the last two days, deadly tornadoes have left a path of destruction in their wake. One subdivision in Vilonia, Arkansas, was particularly hard hit on Sunday.

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Much of the South is going through a devastating week. Tornadoes struck Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee last night. At least 11 people were killed.

GREENE: And all that came a day after a tornado struck Arkansas, leaving 15 people dead there. The National Weather Service estimates it carved a 40-mile long path through an area west of Little Rock.

INSKEEP: The tornado struck a town where people already knew more than they ever wanted to know about destruction.

NPR's David Schaper reports on Vilonia, Arkansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW)

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Crews worked as long as the fading evening sun and local authorities enforcing a curfew would allow, pushing and piling the scattered debris of what used to be homes and businesses but are now almost unrecognizable, reduced to crumpled bricks, splintered wood and shredded roofs and siding. The powerful tornado, with winds nearing 165-miles an hour, cut a diagonal path of destruction a half mile wide through residential subdivisions and then right over Main Street and through the heart of Vilonia, following almost exactly the path of a twister that hit this town of 3,800 residents three years ago.

STATE SENATOR JASON RAPERT: Three years ago and two days to the date, I believe, was the last tornado, and this one is more devastating.

SCHAPER: State Senator Jason Rapert represents Vilonia about 30 miles north of Little Rock.

RAPERT: The sad thing is today where I was at, the homes there were swept clean. They just rebuilt.

SCHAPER: Rapert is talking about one subdivision in Vilonia were several people were killed, including seven and eight-year-old brothers who authorities say were ripped from their home and found in a nearby field. Their parents were seriously hurt but survived. However, a 31-year old father did not. He died while shielding his five-year-old daughter from falling debris. The only residents in that area that Rapert says came through relatively unscathed had built a storm shelter known as safe room.

RAPERT: They said it was a 24,000-pound safe room that was lifted up from the foundation, cars were hitting it, and that's the only thing that saved eight people in that safe room.

SCHAPER: All around Vilonia, stunned residents aided by volunteers sifted through piles of rubble.

STANLEY GORDON, JR.: I'm Stanley Gordon, Jr. and that's my Dad's office. It blew away last night.

SCHAPER: Gordon and his father and mother, his kids and a couple of nephews, all came down to the office to ride out the storm there.

JR.: We thought it would be good to go there because we thought it was a safe place underneath it. There's a basement there. And it hit and blew everything away, nearly sucked us out.

SCHAPER: Gordon says the office suffered some significant damage from the tornado three years ago but the building remained standing. Now there's almost nothing left.

JR.: Just whenever you get feeling good about having everything, the town looking good and cleaned up again, we're right back at it again. Just hope we can recover from it this time.

SCHAPER: Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe is seeking federal assistance for the recovery here. And he praises the outpouring of support.

GOVERNOR MIKE BEEBE: Arkansans are resilient. And they do work together and neighbors help neighbors, other communities help other communities.

SCHAPER: And the unstable and violent weather continued to cause havoc to the east of here. Tornados touched down late Monday in Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, damaging and destroying hundreds of buildings while flipping cars and trucks off of highways.

Here's Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant.

GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: Mississippians have lost their homes. Many have lost everything that they own today. It is our responsibility to make sure that we respond with all that we have.

SCHAPER: Hundreds of people have been injured in the storms. There are reports of people still missing, so search and rescue crews will comb through the rubble and debris today in hopes of finding survivors.

David Schaper, NPR News, Little Rock.

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