WYNNE, Ark. (AP) — Tornadoes that tore through parts of the South and Midwest killed at least 11 people, collapsed the roof of a packed theater during a heavy metal concert in Illinois, and left small towns and big cities throughout the region bewildered Saturday by the damage.
Possibly dozens of tornadoes touched down into the night across at least seven states, laying waste to homes and businesses and splintering trees, as part of a sprawling storm system that also brought wildfires to the southern Plains and blizzard conditions to the Upper Midwest.
Tens of thousands lost power as the storms smothered a swath of the country home to some 85 million people. The dead included four in the small towns of Wynne, Arkansas, and three in Sullivan, Indiana. Other deaths were reported in Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi and the Little Rock area.
Stunned residents of Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Memphis, Tennessee, woke Saturday to find the high school’s roof shredded and its windows blown out. Huge trees lay on the ground, their stumps reduced to nubs. Broken walls, windows and roofs pocked homes and businesses.
“I’m sad that my town has been hit so hard,” said Heidi Jenkins, a salon owner. “Our school is gone, my church is gone. I’m sad for all the people who lost their homes.”
Recovery was already underway, with workers using chain saws to cut fallen trees and bulldozers moving material from shattered structures. Utility trucks worked to restore power. Groups of volunteers gathered to plan their day.
As Jenkins spoke with a reporter, a passerby in a car yelled, “Do y’all want some fried pies?”
In Belvidere, Illinois, a tornado collapsed the roof of the Apollo Theatre as 260 people attended a heavy metal concert, killing one person and injuring 28, five of them severely, officials said.
People rushed to lift the collapsed part of the ceiling and pull people out of the rubble, Gabrielle Lewellyn, who had just entered the theater, told WTVO-TV.
“They dragged someone out from the rubble, and I sat with him and I held his hand and I was (telling him) ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I didn’t really know much else what to do,” Lewellyn said.
The venue’s Facebook page said the bands scheduled to perform were Morbid Angel, Crypta, Skeletal Remains and Revocation.
Crews worked Saturday clean up at and near the Apollo, with forklifts pulling away loosely hanging bricks. Business owners picked up shards of glass and covered shattered windows.
Three people died in Indiana’s Sullivan County, and some residents in the county seat, Sullivan, remained missing Saturday, said officials in the area near the Illinois line, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Indianapolis.
Sullivan Mayor Clint Lamb, at a news conference Saturday, said nearly 200 structures in the county were damaged, calling it “absolutely unbelievable, like nothing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Gas leaks were reported in the area, and the sheriff’s office ordered people to stay out to make way for emergency responders and utility workers.
In the Little Rock area, at least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, authorities said.
The tornado in Little Rock tore first through neighborhoods in the western part of the Arkansas capital and hit a small shopping center. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, causing widespread damage and killing one person.
Little Rock resident Niki Scott took cover in a bathroom. She heard glass shattering and emerged to find her house was one of the few on her street without a tree 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.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders activated 100 members of the National Guard to help local authorities respond.
A suspected tornado killed a woman in northern Alabama’s Madison County, said county official Mac McCutcheon. And in northern Mississippi’s Pontotoc County, officials confirmed one death and four injuries.
The storms struck just hours after President Joe Biden visited the Mississippi community of Rolling Fork, where tornadoes last week destroyed parts of town.
In western Tennessee, Tipton County Sheriff Shannon Beasley wrote on Facebook early Saturday that there was “much devastation” and “some severe injuries” but no reports of deaths yet. But he said many families “lost homes that were leveled to the ground.”
Tornadoes also caused sporadic damage in eastern Iowa, including one just west of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Television footage showed toppled power poles and roofs ripped off buildings and homes in the area.
The number of customers in Arkansas without electricity fell from nearly 90,000 to about 52,000, according to Poweroutage.us. There were 69,000 without power in Indiana, 33,000 in Illinois and 1,300 in Oklahoma. Outages were also reported in Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Texas.
Hail broke windows on cars and buildings northeast of Peoria, Illinois. And blizzard conditions whipped parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, cutting power to some customers in the Twin Cities area.
Nearly 100 new wildfires were reported Friday in Oklahoma, according to the state forest service, and firefighters hoped to gain ground against them Saturday. Fires were expected to remain a danger through the week.
Crews battled several blazes near El Dorado, Kansas, and some residents were asked to evacuate, including about 250 elementary school children who were relocated to a high school.
DeMillo reported from Little Rock. Associated Press writers around the country contributed to this report.
Wynne High school is damaged from Friday’s severe weather in Wynne, Ark., on Saturday, April 1, 2023. Unrelenting tornadoes that tore through parts of the South and Midwest that shredded homes and shopping centers. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)