LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A tornado raced through Little Rock and surrounding areas Friday, splintering homes, overturning vehicles and tossing trees and debris on roadways as people raced for shelter. The city's main trauma center said it was expecting at least 15 to 20 patients.
The twister tore first through neighborhoods in west Little Rock, and shredded a small shopping center that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, where widespread damage was reported to homes, businesses and vehicles.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock was operating at a mass casualty level, spokesperson Leslie Taylor said. Several people had already been transported to the medical center, but an exact count was not immediately available.
Mark Hulsey, a special projects manager for Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock, said at least one person was in critical condition.
Resident Niki Scott took cover in the bathroom after her husband called to say a tornado was headed her way. She could hear glass shattering as the tornado roared past, and emerged afterward to find that her house was one of the few on her street that didn't have a tree fall on it.
"It's just like everyone says. It got really quiet, then it got really loud," Scott said afterward, as chainsaws roared and sirens blared in the area.
The Little Rock Fire Department reported heavy damage and debris in the western end of the city, saying on its Facebook page that firefighters were performing rescue operations in the area.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency and said there was "significant damage" in the central part of the state.
"Praying for all those who were and remain in the path of this storm," she wrote on Twitter. "Arkansans must continue to stay weather aware as storms are continuing to move through."
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. announced that he was requesting assistance from the National Guard.
"Please stay off the roads and away from the affected areas to allow emergency responders to work," Scott tweeted.
More than 350,000 people were at risk from what the National Weather Service called a "confirmed large and destructive tornado."
Passengers and airport employees at Clinton National Airport took shelter in bathrooms and were ordered to stay there until 3:45 p.m. Aerial footage showed several rooftops were torn from homes in Little Rock and nearby Benton.
Nearly 70,000 customers in Arkansas were out of power in the afternoon, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages.
About 32,000 were without power in neighboring Oklahoma, where where wind gusts between 50 and 60 mph fueled fast-moving grass fires. People were urged to evacuate homes in far northeast Oklahoma City, and troopers shut down portions of Interstate 35 near the suburb of Edmond.
More outages were reported in Kansas, Missouri and Texas.
Dylan Dodson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Des Moines, said there were two confirmed tornadoes Friday afternoon in eastern Iowa but it was too early to estimate their size or how much damage they had caused. Poweshiek County sheriff's deputies said one touched down in an empty field and there were no reports of injuries.
"We have some reports of areas that have received damage but as far as severity, it's too early to say yet," Dodson said.
In Illinois, Ben Wagner, chief radar operator for the Woodford County Emergency Management Agency, said hail broke windows on cars and buildings in the area of Roanoke, northeast of Peoria.
Massive storms brewing over at least 15 states in the Midwest and southern U.S. on Friday had meteorologists urging people to brace for dangerous weather including tornadoes, saying the conditions are similar to those a week ago that unleashed a devastating twister that killed at least 21 people in Mississippi.
Millions are under severe weather advisories
More than 85 million people were under weather advisories as the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center forecast an unusually large outbreak of thunderstorms with the potential to cause hail, damaging wind gusts and strong tornadoes that could move for long distances over the ground.
The area at greatest risk for storms on Friday follows a large stretch of the Mississippi River from Wisconsin all the way to Mississippi, with rare high-risk advisories centered around Memphis; and between Davenport, Iowa, and Quincy, Illinois and surrounding areas.
Forecasters issued tornado watches over both high-risk regions until Friday evening, with the weather service expecting numerous tornadoes and calling it a "particularly dangerous situation."
All told, by Friday afternoon, tornado watches issued by the National Weather Service cover most of Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa; western Illinois; and parts of Wisconsin, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi.
Such "intense supercell thunderstorms" are only expected to become more common, especially in Southern states, as temperatures rise around the world.
Apart from Little Rock, the major population centers at high risk for storms starting Friday afternoon included Chicago; St. Louis; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"There will be lots of thunderstorms ... tornadoes, damaging winds, and large hail," said Northern Illinois meteorology professor and tornado expert Victor Gensini.
Forecasters warned of a "relatively rare, significant severe weather threat" around Chicago that could include powerful winds, tornadoes and large hail.
In Iowa City, the University of Iowa canceled Friday's watch party for fans who planned to gather for the women's basketball Final Four game against South Carolina.
Friday's storms come days after a devastating tornado in Mississippi
Last Friday night, a vicious tornado in Mississippi killed at least 21 people, injured dozens and flattened entire blocks as it carved a path of destruction for more than an hour. About 2,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The toll was especially steep in western Mississippi's Sharkey County, where 13 people were killed in a county of 3,700 residents. Winds of up to 200 mph (322 kph) barreled through the rural farming town of Rolling Fork, reducing homes to piles of rubble, flipping cars and toppling the town's water tower.
Gensini said Friday's atmospheric setup is similar to the conditions that were present during Mississippi's deadly storm.
The hazardous forecast is a result of strong southerly winds transporting copious amounts of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico north, where they will interact with the strengthening storm system.
In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem ordered state executive branch offices to be closed Friday in parts of the state, as freezing rain, snow and high winds were expected. Many counties were under blizzard or ice storm warnings.
The weather service is forecasting another batch of intense storms next Tuesday in the same general area as last week. At least the first 10 days of April will be rough, Accuweather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said earlier this week.