Devastated communities across the South and Midwest were picking up the pieces and digging through debris Sunday after ferocious storms and tornadoes leveled neighborhoods and left at least 22 people dead.
A tornado outbreak that walloped the country on Friday brought more than 50 tornado reports in at least seven states, including Arkansas and Tennessee, where multiple deaths were reported. The tornadoes crushed homes and businesses, ripped roofs off buildings, splintered trees and sent vehicles flying.
More than 200 people were inside the Apollo Theatre in Belvidere in northern Illinois when its roof collapsed Friday, leaving one person dead and dozens injured, the city fire chief said.
And in Wynne, Arkansas, the storm was so powerful that it completely peeled the turf off a high school’s football field.
At least seven people died after two back-to-back lines of storms hit McNairy County, Tennessee, where authorities were searching through collapsed buildings Saturday evening.
“We had deaths on the west side of the county and all the way to the east side of the county,” McNairy County Sheriff Guy Buck told CNN, describing a powerful storm cutting through the entire county.
Deaths were reported across several states, including four people who were killed in Illinois; three people who died in Sullivan, Indiana; and four in Wynne, Arkansas.
The governors of Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Arkansas all announced emergency or disaster declarations in their states to help free up immediate assistance for impacted counties.
Little Rock, Arkansas, suffered heavy damage but reported no fatalities as of Saturday afternoon. Efforts are now focused on recovery and rebuilding, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said.
“It’s unbelievable anytime that you see, literally, vehicles flying across the air, structures being flattened,” the mayor said. “Many people were not at their homes, if they were, it would have been a massacre,” Scott Jr. told CNN.
The National Weather Service reported that an EF-3 tornado had roared through Pulaski and Lonoke counties in Arkansas with estimated peak winds of 165 mph. The powerful tornado killed one person in North Little Rock and four people about 100 miles east in Wynne.
Nearly 2,600 structures in Little Rock were impacted and around 50 people were sent to hospitals, according to the mayor.
In addition to leaving trails of destruction across several states, storms have also knocked out power to battered communities, including over 30,000 customers affected by outages in Arkansas, according to poweroutage.us.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were also without power across the South and Northeast, including 134,000 in Pennsylvania and nearly 86,000 in Ohio, according to poweroutage.us.
The damaging weather across the South and Midwest comes after a severe tornado-spawning storm walloped the Southeast and killed at least 26 people and destroying much of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, just last week.
Small town ‘basically cut in half’
After a line of severe weather moved through Wynne, Arkansas, “the town is basically cut in half by damage from east to west,” said Mayor Jennifer Hobbs, who watched the twister as it approached from a distance.
“I don’t know how to put it into words. It was devastating. It’s much different seeing it firsthand than it is when you see it on TV hit another communities,” Hobbs said.
Some houses in Wynne – home to about 8,000 residents – were completely crushed into piles of wood while others had their roofs ripped off, exposing the interiors of homes littered with storm debris, drone footage provided to CNN shows.
“We have a lot of families that are completely devastated. Have no home at all, no belongings survived,” the mayor added.
Early warning of storms saved lives, sheriff says
Janice Pieterick and her husband Donald Lepczyk were in their RV when they got the alert of an incoming tornado and rushed to her daughter’s home across the yard in Hohenwald, Tennessee, CNN affiliate WTVF reported. The tornado hit minutes later.
The family rushed and huddled together in the bathroom as the storm roared outside.
“We made her and the kids get into the bathtub because that’s supposed to be the safest place. And we just all hunkered down because all the doors blew out. Double doors in the front, double doors in the back, all the glass in the windows. It all blew out at once,” Pieterick said.
Pieterick said the whole house shook. “You can literally feel it moving. Lifting up. That’s when we thought we were going too,” she said.
In nearby McNairy County, where multiple deaths have been reported, sheriff Buck said the death toll could have been much higher if residents had not heeded early warnings and sought out proper shelter.
“Had they not, looking at the devastation that we had, our death toll could have been in the hundreds,” Buck said. “The power of mother nature is something not to be underestimated,” he added.
CNN’s Samantha Beech, Raja Razek, Andy Rose and Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.