Survivors and emergency workers continue to pick through debris in communities northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas, after a large tornado demolished homes and left at least 15 dead Sunday night.
The tornado that touched down around 7 p.m. Sunday about 10 miles west of Little Rock grew to be half a mile wide and remained on the ground for much of that route, authorities said.
Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, a town that was recovering from a tornado that killed four people in April 2011.
Three people died when the tornado tore a Paron home down to the foundation. Emily Tittle, 17, said her family took shelter under the stairs of their two-story home before the twister ripped the walls away. She said her father, Rob Tittle; 20-year-old sister Tori and 14-year-old sister Rebekah were killed, and her six other siblings were taken to hospitals.
Officials said the death toll could have been worse if residents hadn't piled into underground storm shelters and fortified safe rooms after listening to forecasts on TV and radio, getting cellphone alerts or calls or texts from loved ones, and hearing sirens blare through their neighborhoods.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor visited the scene of the devastation Monday in Mayflower, Arkansas, where he captured this photo:
Karla Ault, a Vilonia High School volleyball coach, said she sheltered in the school gymnasium as the storm approached. After it passed, her husband told her their home had been reduced to the slab on which it had sat.
"I'm just kind of numb. It's just shock that you lost everything. You don't understand everything you have until you realize that all I've got now is just what I have on," Ault said.
In Faulkner County, sheriff Andy Shock told the Associated Press there is "utter devastation," and that family members are searching for missing relatives. Shock said there is widespread confusion and a medical triage area had to be opened in a Mayflower home-improvement store's parking lot to treat the injured.
The American Red Cross has opened two emergency shelters and is supporting four community shelters for residents displaced by tornadoes in three Arkansas counties. For owners of missing pets, a Facebook page has been launched, hopeful there will be reunions.
Brandon Morris, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said crews were clearing debris as soon as the sun started to come up Monday, including scenes like this one near Mayflower:
"Right now, the main focus is life safety," Morris said. "We're trying to make sure everyone is accounted for."
He said officials are also looking at the environmental impact. "Making sure utilities are cut off in the area. We don't want anything to get, any fires to start or anything like that."
Storm chasers were on the scene shortly after, and Brett Adair told The Weather Channel that they assisted injured residents in nearby communities affected by the tornado. After hitting Mayflower, the tornado also left severe damage in Vilonia and El Paso.
'A Constant Rolling, Roaring Sound'
Becky Naylor, 57, of Mayflower, said up to 22 people "packed like sardines" into her storm cellar as the tornado approached.
"People were pulling off the highways and were just running in," said Naylor. Men held the cellar doors tight to prevent the tornado from ripping them apart.
"It sounded like a constant rolling, roaring sound," she said. "Trees were really bending and the light poles were actually shaking and moving. That's before we shut the door and we've only shut the door to the storm cellar two times."
After Sunday's tornado struck the small town of Vilonia, Arkansas, resident Tom Marsh said "it was like a war zone." Among the ruins there was a new $14 million intermediate school that was set to open this fall.
"There's just really nothing there anymore. We're probably going to have to start all over again," Vilonia Schools Superintendent Frank Mitchell said after surveying what was left of the building.
Matt DeCample, a spokesperson for Gov. Mike Beebe, told the AP that the tornado was at least a half-mile wide when it slammed Vilonia. Almost exactly three years ago – on April 25, 2011 – this central Arkansas city of just over 4,000 residents was hit by a tornado that killed four people and damaged many local buildings.
Dr. Greg Forbes, severe weather expert for The Weather Channel, said the Arkansas tornado reminded him of another devastating twister that hit central Oklahoma last spring.
"It's reminding me of the kind of thing we saw in the El Reno tornado last May," said Forbes of his analysis of the radar debris signature from last night's Arkansas tornado. The El Reno tornado was the widest on record, and caused 8 deaths and more than $35 million in property damage.
Tornado 'Shredded' Cars, Trucks and 18-Wheelers
The Arkansas twister shredded cars, trucks and 18-wheelers stuck along Interstate 40 north of Little Rock. After the storm passed, tractor-trailer rigs tried to navigate through the damage to continue their journeys, while gawkers held smartphones to their windows to offer a grim glimpse of the destruction.
State troopers went vehicle-to-vehicle to check on motorists and found — with genuine surprise — that no one was killed.
"About 30 vehicles — large trucks, sedans, pickup trucks — were going through there when the funnel cloud passed over," said Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police.
The Red Cross has opened emergency shelters at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Conway and Beryl Baptist Church in Vilonia.
Four other Red Cross-supported shelters are also open. In Conway, they are located at Antioch Baptist Church, Oak Bowery Baptist Church and Point of Grace. A shelter is also available at Mayflower Middle School.
The shelters are providing cots, blankets and food for the displaced residents.
Storm Rating May Take Until Mid-Week
Storm surveyors with the National Weather Service (NWS) headed to the Mayflower area Monday morning to determine the strength of the powerful tornado that devastated parts of Faulkner County.
NWS warning coordination meteorologist John Robinson says two teams were to begin surveying the storm damage Monday morning. Robinson says both teams will start at Mayflower, with one heading southwest and one heading northeast toward Vilonia.
Robinson says it's unlikely the survey team will complete the entire track of the storm Monday, so the weather service may not be able to determine the tornado's EF rating until Tuesday or later.
The tornado that hit Vilonia in 2011 was an EF2.
President Pledges Help
President Barack Obama sent his deepest condolences to those affected by a deadly tornado that ripped through Arkansas, addressing last night's severe weather event while traveling in Asia.
Obama said he wants everyone affected to know that the federal government is on the ground to help, adding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will work with local officials.
"Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild, as long as it takes," Obama said while at a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino during a presidential vist to Asia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Kimberly Estates resident Robin Welshans describes Tuesday, April 29, 2014, how her and her son took refuge under this mattress as her home was damaged by Monday nights tornado, in Kimberly, Ala. (Hal Yeager/weather.com)