Powerful tornadoes have killed at least 17 people as they flipped cars, ripped up homes and uprooted trees across the south-central United States, emergency officials have reported.
“It’s chaos right now,” the mayor of the Arkansas town of Vilonia, James Firestone, told CNN late on Sunday emergency crews used searchlights to comb through the debris in some of the hardest-hit areas.
The central part of the town of 4000 “seems like it’s completely levelled. There’s a few buildings partially standing, gas lines spewing. Fire lines down. We’ve had some casualties.”
The twisters tore through the region on Sunday and continued overnight into Monday. They are forecast to threaten much of the region throughout Tuesday.
Firestone said that police and firefighters from nearby cities as well as National Guard troops were heading to Vilonia.
Twisters also devastated large sections of the town of Mayflower, population 2300, just northwest of the Arkansas state capital Little Rock.
Pictures of tornado damage posted by Arkansas TV station THV 11 showed smashed cars, homes ripped in half and whole residential blocks reduced to rubble.
Officials said that parts of Interstate 40, a major east-west highway across the United States, was closed due to debris and overturned vehicles in the Mayflower area.
Two regional utility companies, Entergy and First Electric Cooperative, said that more than 15,000 customers were in the dark.
“It’s been a truly awful night for many families, neighbourhoods and communities but Arkansans always step up to help each other recover,” Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe wrote on Twitter.
The full impact of the storm and its toll will likely not be known until after sunrise.
In Oklahoma, a powerful twister struck the town of Quapaw.
“There have been numerous homes and buildings damaged and some destroyed,” Keli Cain of the Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency told AFP.
She cited local emergency officials as saying that a fire station was destroyed and there was damage to the northern part of the town.
Dozens of homes were also reported destroyed in nearby Kansas, though state officials have reported no fatalities.
The National Weather Service warned of a severe weather threat across the central and southern United States over the next days.