Tornado devastation in US, rescue operation starts, 18 found dead
Washington: Residents emerged Monday to view the full scope of the devastation left by powerful tornadoes that tore through small towns in south-central United States, killing at least 18 people.
More big twisters were expected as violent thunder and hail storms move through a large swath of the southern United States, from Texas to Tennessee, forecasters said.
Tornadoes struck the region on Sunday evening, flipping cars, ripping up homes and uprooting trees, emergency officials said.
One of the towns hardest hit by the storms, Vilonia, Arkansas, intensified its search for survivors Monday, after the arrival of daylight allowed a good look at the storm damage.Vilonia`s police chief, Brad McNew, told US television that tornado damage had rendered his town unrecognizable.
"It`s houses completely down to the foundations," he told NBC television on Monday.
Rescuers in the town had worked through the night using searchlights in blacked-out areas as they sifted through mountains of rubble searching for survivors.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management said 15 people were killed when tornadoes touched down on Sunday, while an official with the Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency said there were at least two tornado victims in the state.
Local media reported another fatality in the state of Iowa.
McNew said there was not yet a final tally of casualties in his town of just 4,000 people.He said, however, that the toll would surely have been far worse, if not for emergency sirens that warned citizens of the oncoming twister.
"The storm warnings went out fairly early," he said.
"I went to a tornado shelter myself with my family which was a couple miles away from where we were at. A lot of people in the community were there. And so, it did work," he said.
"If you see the destruction that is here, even though we`ve lost some lives, there`s many lives that was saved because of the storm warnings," McNew said.
Sadly, Vilonia has seen devastation from tornadoes before. Officials said the town was struck three years ago by a tornado that took almost the same path.
But Sunday`s twister was "a lot worse than it was three years ago," McNew said.
Twisters also devastated large sections of the town of Mayflower, population 2,300, just northwest of the Arkansas state capital Little Rock.
The National Weather Service warned of the threat of "a severe weather outbreak" beginning late Monday, affecting several states, including the lower Mississippi Valley, Tennessee Vally and Central Gulf Coast states.
"Numerous tornadoes are expected, some of which could be intense, the NWS said.
"Very large hail and damaging straight line winds are also likely," it said.
In far-away Manila meanwhile, President Barack Obama, who is on a tour of Asian nations, offered condolences and promised federal government aid.
"I want everybody to know that your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild as long as it takes," he said.
The White House said Obama called Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe to offer federal assistance.
Television news footage showed big-rig trucks crushed like empty cans in Arkansas, homes violently ripped in half, and entire residential blocks reduced to rubble.
Some homes were uprooted from their foundation. In Iowa, the tornado also dumped heavy rain, snapped trees and lifted the roof off a medical center in the town of Oskaloosa.
"There have been numerous homes and buildings damaged and some destroyed," Keli Cain of the Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency told AFP.
Dozens of homes were also reported destroyed in nearby Kansas, although officials so far have reported no fatalities there.
Forecasters warned the twisters would continue to threaten the region through Tuesday across the central and southern United States, and said powerful thunderstorms and severe flooding was also possible.