Powerful storms, tornadoes kill 18 in 3 states

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A row of lightly damages houses, top, face destroyed homes in a Vilonia, Ark., neighborhood Monday, April 28, 2014 after a tornado struck the town late Sunday, killing at least 16 people. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

A row of lightly damages houses, top, face destroyed homes in a Vilonia, Ark., neighborhood Monday, April 28, 2014 after a tornado struck the town late Sunday, killing at least 16 people. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Two men stand in front of a destroyed house in Mayflower, Ark., Monday, April 28, 2014, after a tornado struck the town late Sunday. A tornado system ripped through several states in the central U.S. and left at least 17 dead in a violent start to this year’s storm season, officials said. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Houses are destroyed in Mayflower, Ark., Monday, April 28, 2014, after a tornado struck the town late Sunday. A tornado system ripped through several states in the central U.S. and left at least 17 dead in a violent start to this year’s storm season, officials said. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Residents view damage from a Sunday night tornado in Baxter Springs, Kan., Monday, April 28, 2014. The tornado left a trail of shattered homes, twisted metal and hanging power lines. One person died, but it was not clear whether the death was related to the storm. Volunteers were meeting early Monday to discuss cleanup efforts. Emergency officials say 60 to 70 homes and 20 to 25 businesses were destroyed or damaged in the town. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Bob Hessee checks out property owned by a friend and damaged by a tornado Sunday evening in Baxter Springs, Kan., Monday, April 28, 2014. The tornado left a trail of shattered homes, twisted metal and hanging power lines. One person died, but it was not clear whether the death was related to the storm. Volunteers were meeting early Monday to discuss cleanup efforts. Emergency officials say 60 to 70 homes and 20 to 25 businesses were destroyed or damaged in the town. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

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VILONIA, Ark. (AP) — Emergency officials were searching for survivors Monday in the debris left by a powerful tornado that killed at least 16 people in Arkansas and carved an 80-mile path of destruction through suburban Little Rock.

The tornado that slammed into Vilonia, just west of the capital city, grew to about half a mile wide Sunday and was among a rash of tornadoes and strong storms that rumbled across the Midwest and South overnight. The National Weather Service warned that more tornadoes, damaging winds and very large hail would strike Monday in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana.

“We don’t have a count on injuries or missing. We’re trying to get a handle on the missing part,” Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said during a Monday news conference. “Just looking at the damage, this may be one of the strongest we have seen.”

Brandon Morris, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said crews were sifting through the rubble in the hope of uncovering survivors and to assess the full extent of the damage.

“Right now, the main focus is life safety,” Morris said. “We’re trying to make sure everyone is accounted for.”

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 was 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.

The tornado that hit Vilonia and nearby Mayflower would likely be rated as the nation’s strongest twister to date this year, as it has the potential to be at least an EF3 storm, which has winds greater than 136 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hood said.

“Based on some of the footage we’ve seen from Mayflower and where it crossed Interstate 40, things were wrecked in a very significant way,” he said, adding that emergency officials were “making sure utilities are cut off in the area. We don’t want anything to get, any fires to start or anything like that.”

In southeastern Iowa, a woman was killed when either a tornado or powerful straight-line winds caused a farm building to collapse. Another twister killed a person in Quapaw, Okla., before crossing into Kansas, where it destroyed more than 100 homes and businesses, and injured 25 people in the city of Baxter Springs, according to Kansas authorities.

The overall death toll stood at 18 late Monday morning.

Sue McBride, a 71-year old retired sewing machinist in Baxter Springs, said she thought the tornado sirens could spell a false alarm. But then she saw and heard the twister approaching. She said debris flew all around as she ran into her home. She hunkered on her knees in her hallway with her head down as the tornado shattered her windows, spraying glass all over her.

“I didn’t have one scratch on me and I was fine,” McBride said from a Red Cross shelter in the city, where the tornado left a trail of shattered homes, twisted metal and hanging power lines.

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 as gawkers captured cellphone photos 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.

Nearby Conway Regional Medical Center said it treated about 100 people injured in the storm.

Among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this

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