MENA, Ark. – A tornado that swept through this mountain community killed three people and injured at least 30 others, authorities said Friday after concluding a house-to-house search.
The twister Thursday was a part of a line of severe weather that continued wreaking damage Friday in the South. The National Weather Service said a tornado destroyed two homes in southwestern Kentucky, and authorities near Nashville, Tenn., said multiple tornado touchdowns were reported.
Thursday's twister descended quickly on Mena shortly after 8 p.m. after a series of siren blasts warned residents of tornadoes in the area. An initial survey of the damage suggests the tornado packed winds of at least 136 mph, weather service forecaster John Robinson at North Little Rock said Friday.
Daylight exposed a community ripped apart. Century-old pecan trees leaned into homes — some with pink insulation strung from their branches. Along some streets, roofs had collapsed into homes. On other streets, roofs were simply gone.
"It just looks like a war zone," Mayor George McKee said.
Thurman Allen, 79, said his charitable group, the Order of the Eastern Star, had just sat down for its twice-monthly meeting at the Masonic lodge when the last siren sounded. Before the 19 attendees could take cover, the tornado peeled away the roof with winds so strong that some women had their shoes ripped off their feet.
"I was down on the floor — I just flattened," Allen said.
One woman was killed by falling debris — her body was recovered after emergency workers cut part of the roof away.
Elsewhere in the Ouachita Mountains town, Marion Boyt, 76, said he survived after rushing into a small closet with his son and daughter-in-law.
"I guess we got skinny because we were so scared," he said.
Boyt said one of those killed died when the roof of a two-story home collapsed.
The body of the third person killed was found in her front yard, county's emergency coordinator James Reeves said. Authorities have not released the names of those killed pending notification of their families.
The injured were taken to Mena Medical Center for treatment.
Polk County Sheriff Mike Oglesby told The Associated Press that searchers found no new victims during their search of Mena and the surrounding area, and he said there were no reports of missing persons.
The violent weather was part of a system that caused damage throughout the South and parts of the Midwest. As the storms moved east, hail and high winds were reported in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Power was out in many parts of the region.
Southeast of Nashville in Rutherford County, a sheriff's dispatcher said "multiple tornado touchdowns" were reported Friday in various parts of the county.
Brian Smith, general manager at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in the area along Interstate 24, said he saw a "pretty wide" tornado and that he "could see debris in the air from the rotation."
A tornado Friday destroyed two homes and knocked down trees and power lines near the community of Mannington, Ky., in Christian County, weather service meteorologist Robin Smith said in Paducah. Smith said the storm also dumped hail, some as large as eggs, throughout Christian and Lyon counties.
The weather service said a woman was injured at Shreveport, La., when a tree fell onto her car during a tornado. Twisters also damaged homes east of Vinita and near Muse in Oklahoma and at Crossett in far southern Arkansas, near the Louisiana line.
In Mena, a city of 5,700, National Guard troops patrolled downtown Friday. An overnight curfew was put in effect as emergency crews dealt with ruptured gas lines, downed power lines, fallen trees and heavily damaged buildings.
Gov. Mike Beebe declared a disaster in Polk, Howard and Sevier counties, which were hardest hit by the storm.
Prosecutor Tim Williamson said dispatchers at the county courthouse had been trapped inside immediately after the storm, and that the county jail was "uninhabitable." Inmates were transferred to nearby counties, said the office of County Judge Ray Stanley.
The twister tore the roof off a local community college building and destroyed two businesses at the city's industrial park, Williamson said.
Mena Middle School also sustained significant roof damage, principal Mike Hobson said. One portable classroom was destroyed and part of the auditorium's roof was ripped away. Administrators would have to discuss when classes can resume, Hobson said.
Rick Lanman, who manages the Mena Airport, said darkness fell quickly as the tornado crossed the Oklahoma line 10 miles away.
"Me and the dog ran to the bathroom when we saw it on the TV," Lanman said. "It was here in less than a minute."
Mena sirens sounded for earlier storms north and south of town. When they sounded a fourth time, "experience was telling me that we were in trouble," said Lanman, who said he been through tornadoes before in Oklahoma and Illinois.