MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The death toll rose to 27 and more dangerous weather was forecast for a wide swath of the South and Midwest already in ruins Sunday from a surge of storms that fueled confirmed or suspected tornadoes in at least eight states.
The dead included at least nine in McNairy County, Tennessee, about 100 miles east of Memphis. Four of the fatalities were in the same building – one of at least 72 destroyed across the county, Mayor Larry Smith said.
Four deaths were reported in the Wynne, Arkansas, and three in Sullivan, Indiana. Deaths also were reported in Illinois, Alabama and Mississippi, and another in Arkansas.
Almost 400,000 homes and businesses were in the dark in a dozen Southern and Eastern states Sunday as strong winds and storms toppled trees, downed power lines and converted anything left outdoors into dangerous projectiles.
One tornado at the center of the destruction in Arkansas drew stunning preliminary data from the National Weather Service – an EF-3 with winds of up to 165 mph, 30 miles long and 1.3 miles wide.
There was no rest for the weary: Severe thunderstorms and flash flooding were possible Sunday across parts of the southern Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley, the National Weather Service warned.
“Unfortunately more severe weather is possible in the coming days,” the weather service office in Little Rock said. A strong storm system will approach the area from the west, and thunderstorms were expected to develop Tuesday through Wednesday morning.
TORNADO OUTBREAK: South, Midwest reeling from severe weather
STORMS KILL NINE IN TENNESSEE COUNTY:72 homes were destroyed
►President Joe Biden declared parts of the country a major disaster because of the storms, and the White House announced Sunday that it would provide federal resources including financial assistance.
►A street sign from west Little Rock swept up in a tornado was found about 13 miles away in the town of Sherwood, KATV-TV reported.
Five people remained in critical condition Sunday following the roof collapse at a sold-out theater in Belvedere, Illinois, Gov. Pritzker said Sunday. One man died and 48 others were injured when a storm hit the Apollo Theatre on Friday evening, Pritzker said during a Sunday briefing from the site. The theater was in ruins after its façade crashed to the street amid debris from the battered building. Belvidere Fire Chief Shawn Schadle said first responders arrived within two minutes and began extricating people from the rubble. More than 250 people were in the Apollo when the collapse took place.
Concert-goer Christina Johnson Johnson told abc7chicago.com that theaer staff announced a 30-minute break because of weather when chaos erupted.
“I just remember seeing all these people lifting the roof off of the people,” Johnson said. “And just trying to pull people out. And seeing somebody not moving being pulled out was terrifying.”
In Crawford County, Illinois, three people were killed and eight injured when a tornado hit near New Hebron, authorities said. Sheriff Bill Rutan said up to 100 families were displaced.
“We’ve had emergency crews digging people out of their basements because the house is collapsed on top of them, but luckily they had that safe space to go to,” Rutan said.
When the storms rolled toward Tennessee’s Tipton County on Friday night, school truancy officer Steve Zurhellen prepared to drive to Crestview Elementary School, where he often takes shelter during severe weather. But he decided to check on two 90-year-old neighbors and rode out the storms with them.
The storms that slammed into Covington and Tipton County, just north of Memphis, left one person dead and 28 injured, authorities said. Crestview Elementary suffered catastrophic damage – a chunk of the school building was pulled off, leaving the gymnasium exposed, Tipton County Schools Superintendent John Combs said. Neither Crestview Elementary nor Middle School will hold classes on site for the rest of the school year, and officials were working on a plan to hold classes elsewhere. For the next week, Crestview students are not to report to class.
Covington Mayor Jan Hensley came close to tears when discussing the impact of the storm.
“The loss of life is the hardest to deal with,” he said. “We can rebuild, (but) our town has taken a major hit. So many things, our citizens, their homes, their business, their schools, their places to play, their electricity, their way of life, have been affected.”
– Gina Butkovich, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Three storm cells hit McNairy County on Friday night, taking almost exactly the same path, causing damage to 35% to 40% of the county, authorities said. The majority of the damage was to homes and residential areas, Adamsville Mayor David Leckner said.
Gov. Bill Lee drove to the county Saturday to tour the destruction and comfort residents. He said the storm capped the “worst” week of his time as governor, coming days after a school shooting in Nashville that killed six people including a family friend.
“This is a tragic, tragic loss for this community, this county, the state,” Lee said in Adamsville. “It comes on the heels of tragedy already. It’s been a very difficult week for our state, but it looks like your community has done what Tennesseans do, and that is rally and surround one another and respond.”
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Lee stopped and spoke with Jeffrey Day, who stood outside his daughter’s home, looking at baby clothes strewn around what was once the front porch. The clothes had been stored in the attic, but Saturday the attic was almost gone.
Day told Lee that he is grateful his family made it through the night, even if their home is damaged. Day said he was 5 miles away on the phone with his daughter, Justina Martin, when the storm hit. She was in the home’s walk-in closet using her body to cover one of her two sons when she felt a suction sensation, she told him.
“When I heard her on the phone, it was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to listen to,” Day said.
In Wynne, Arkansas, 28 people sought medical treatment at a local hospital after Friday’s twister. The roof was torn off Wynne High School and windows were blown out. Homes and businesses were battered across the community of 8,000 people, 50 miles west of Memphis.
Ashley Macmillan said she, her husband and their children huddled with their dogs in a small bathroom as a tornado passed, “praying and saying goodbye to each other, because we thought we were dead.” A falling tree seriously damaged their home, but they were unhurt.
“We could feel the house shaking, we could hear loud noises, dishes rattling,” she said. “And then it just got calm.”
More than 50 people were injured in a tornado that ripped through Little Rock on Friday, Mayor Frank Scott said. More than 2,600 homes, businesses and other structures were damaged, he said. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will tour Little Rock and Wynne on Sunday, Scott announced hours before the planned visit.
“A catastrophic storm tore through our neighborhoods, injuring dozens and damaging thousands of structures,” he said. “It was a heartbreaking day for our community, but we are exceedingly grateful there is no reported loss of life.”
Contributing: The Associated Press