Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told NewsNation that five people have been killed statewide, including four in Wynne, Arkansas.
The National Weather Service in Little Rock said their survey team confirmed it was a high-end EF3 tornado — with winds up to 165 mph — that crushed parts of the city, including a shopping center about 10 minutes from downtown.
Stunned residents of Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people 50 miles west of Memphis, Tennessee, woke Saturday to find the local 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 dotted homes and businesses.
One man was just packing up his truck after grocery shopping and described having to sprint to shelter, just as the tornado made its way through.
“As I got in, huddled up against the cement barrier,” said storm survivor Ken Bruton. “every single glass window blew out. People were blown back. I held on — and it must have been a minute — huddled. I thought I was a goner for sure.”
The tornado stayed on the ground for about 20 to 25 miles, officials said. It was one of many tornadoes that killed at least 27 people and sent dozens more to hospitals, wrecking small towns and big cities across the Midwest and Southeast — from Iowa to Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee.
“Maria and I are deeply saddened by the loss of life, significant injuries and severe storm damage across Tennessee,” said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. “This afternoon, I will travel to West Tennessee to survey damage and pray alongside Tennesseans as we continue to endure this heartbreaking week for our state. I thank state and local emergency officials, law enforcement, first responders and road crews for quickly responding to assist impacted communities and prevent further tragedy, and Tennessee stands ready to support local recovery efforts.”
Confirmed or suspected tornadoes destroyed homes and businesses, splintered trees, and lay waste to neighborhoods across a broad swath of the country. The dead included seven in one Tennessee county, four in Wynne, Arkansas, and three in Sullivan, Indiana.
Other deaths from the storms that hit Friday night into Saturday were reported in Alabama, Illinois and Mississippi, along with one near Little Rock, Arkansas, where the mayor said more than 2,000 buildings were in a tornado’s path.
The city’s mayor and the governor visited some of the hardest-hit Little Rock neighborhoods in the western part of the city, offering support and listening to stories of survival.
“It’s by the grace of God no one has been impacted with fatalities,” said Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. “However, as you see around here, many folks have been displaced and are looking for shelter. We’re working toward that, again.”
Huckabee Sanders said there were mobile health care units on the ground, as well as National Guard members assisting in Wynne.
“Little Rock is still not at capacity at any of our hospitals,” she said. “We expect it to remain under control here in central Arkansas. The resources that were needed in eastern Arkansas have been provided.”
Recovery was already underway, with workers using chainsaws to cut fallen trees and bulldozers moving material from shattered structures. Utility trucks worked to restore power, and volunteers set out to help.
“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.”