Deadly tornadoes strike U.S. South and Midwest, causing roof of concert theatre to collapse

Storms that dropped possibly dozens of tornadoes killed at least 21 people in small towns and big cities across the southern U.S. and Midwest, tearing a path through the Arkansas capital, collapsing the roof of a packed concert venue in Illinois and stunning people throughout the region on Saturday with the damage’s scope.

Confirmed or suspected tornadoes in at least seven states destroyed homes and businesses, splintered trees and lay waste to neighbourhoods across a broad swath of the country. The dead included seven in Tennessee’s McNairy County, four in the small town of Wynne, Ark., four in Illinois, and three in Sullivan, Ind.

Other deaths from the storms that hit Friday night into Saturday were reported in Alabama and Mississippi, along with one near Little Rock, Ark., where the mayor said more than 2,000 buildings were in a tornado’s path. 

Stunned residents of Wynne, a community of about 8,000 people 80 kilometres west of Memphis, Tenn., woke on 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.

Debris and memories of regular life lay scattered inside the damaged shells of homes and strewn on lawns: clothing, insulation, roofing paper, toys, splintered furniture, a pickup truck with its windows shattered.

Three adults, five children and a dog are walking along a road. The neighbourhood behind them is destroyed, with trees down and homes in pieces.
A family evacuates their Walnut Ridge neighbourhood in Little Rock, Ark., on Friday. (Benjamin Krain/Getty Images)
“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 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.

1 killed, 40 hurt at concert 

In Belvidere, Ill., a tornado collapsed the roof of the Apollo Theatre as 260 people attended a heavy metal concert, killing one person. Officials said 40 other people were injured, including two with life-threatening injuries.

People rushed to lift the collapsed part of the ceiling and pull people out of the rubble, Gabrielle Lewellyn, who had just entered the theatre, told WTVO-TV.

A marquis droops at an angle, with one end touching the ground near a city street. A man in a red helmet stands nearby.  The street and sidewalk are dirty.
Authorities examine the scene at the Apollo Theatre in Belvidere, Ill., after a tornado killed one person and caused damage and injuries during a concert late Friday. (Matt Marton/The Associated Press)

“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 on Saturday to clean up around the Apollo, with forklifts pulling away loosely hanging bricks. Business owners picked up shards of glass and covered shattered windows.

People tour a tornado-hit neighbourhood.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks after surveying tornado damage in Rolling Fork, Miss., on Friday. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

In the Little Rock, Ark., area, at least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, authorities said.

The tornado in Little Rock first tore through neighbourhoods in the western part of the Arkansas capital and shredded a small shopping centre that included a Kroger grocery store. It then crossed the Arkansas River into North Little Rock and surrounding cities, where widespread damage was reported to homes, businesses and vehicles.

Really quiet, then really loud

In the Little Rock area, at least one person was killed and more than two dozen were hurt, some critically, authorities said. Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott said that 2,100 homes and businesses were in the tornado’s path but that no assessment had been done on how many were damaged.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders activated 100 members of the National Guard to help local authorities respond throughout the state.

A car is turned upside down.
Homes damaged by a tornado are seen on Friday in Little Rock, Ark. Tornados damaged hundreds of homes and buildings Friday afternoon across a large part of central Arkansas. (Benjamin Krain/Getty Images)

A suspected tornado killed a woman in northern Alabama’s Madison County as it destroyed several buildings, said county official Mac McCutcheon. And in northern Mississippi’s Pontotoc County, the state emergency management agency confirmed one death and four injuries. 

The storms struck just hours after U.S. President Joe Biden visited the Mississippi community of Rolling Fork, where tornadoes last week destroyed parts of the town.

Tennessee governor: ‘It’s terrible’

Authorities in Tipton County, north of Memphis, said a tornado appeared to have touched down near a middle school and other locations. 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee drove to the county on Saturday to tour the destruction and comfort residents. He said the storm capped the “worst” week of his time as governor, coming days after a school shooting in Nashville that killed six people, including a family friend whose funeral he and his wife, Maria, attended earlier in the day.

“It’s terrible what has happened in this community, this county, this state,” Lee said. “But it looks like your community has done what Tennessean communities do, and that is rally and respond.”

Politicians in casual cloths walk past damage from a tornado.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, left, and U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee, right, speak with Adamsville, Tenn., resident Jeffrey Day, whose family survived a fatal tornado, in Adamsville on Saturday. (Kimberlee Kruesi/The Associated Press)

Jeffrey Day said he called his daughter after seeing on the news that their community of Adamsville, Tenn., was being hit. Huddled in a closet with her two-year-old son as the storm passed over, she answered the phone screaming.

“She kept asking me, ‘What do I do, Daddy?”‘ Day said, tearing up. “I didn’t know what to say.”

After the storm passed, his daughter crawled out of her destroyed home and over barbed wire and drove to nearby family. On Saturday evening, baby clothes were still strewn about the site.

Tennessee officials warned that the same weather conditions from Friday night are expected to return on Tuesday.

Widespread power outages

Tornadoes also caused sporadic damage in eastern Iowa. One veered just west of Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Video from KCRG-TV showed toppled power poles and roofs ripped off an apartment building in the suburb of Coralville, as well as damaged homes in the city of Hills.

The remnants of a house destroyed by a tornado.
Destroyed homes are shown on Friday after a tornado swept through Coralville, Iowa. (Ryan Foley/The Associated Press)

It could take days to determine the exact number of tornadoes, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center. There were also hundreds of reports of large hail and damaging winds, he said.

“That’s a quite active day. But that’s not unprecedented,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands lost power because of the sprawling storm system that also brought wildfires to the southern Plains and blizzard conditions to the Upper Midwest, and left high winds in its wake.

More than 530,000 homes and businesses in the affected area lacked power at midday Saturday, over 200,000 of them in Ohio, according to

The sprawling storm system also brought wildfires to the southern Plains, with authorities in Oklahoma reporting nearly 100 of them on Friday. At least 32 people were said to be injured and more than 40 homes destroyed.

The storms also caused blizzard conditions in the Upper Midwest.

A threat of tornadoes and hail remained for the northeast, including in parts of Pennsylvania and New York.

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