LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Tornadoes fueled by unusually warm weather pummeled the South and Midwest on Friday, killing at least six people and injuring dozens more across Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois. Forecasters said storms could hit along a stretch from near Chicago to New Orleans later in the evening as New Year's Eve celebrations begin.
Three people died in the northwestern Arkansas hamlet of Cincinnati when a tornado touched down just before sunrise, and three others died when a storm spawned by the same weather system ripped up the Missouri countryside near Rolla. A number of storms were also reported in the St. Louis area.
The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said storms later Friday could do more damage from northern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico as communities prepare to mark the start of the new year. Forecasters posted tornado watches for the region that were set to run until 8 p.m.
"It sucked me out of my house and carried me across the road and dropped me," Chris Sisemore of Cincinnati told The Associated Press on Friday. "I was Superman for a while. ... You're just free-floating through the air. Trees are knocking you and smacking you down."
Sisemore said he tried to crawl under his bed and cling to the carpet, fearful a nearby pecan tree would fall into his home. As he nursed cuts, scrapes and bruises to his arms, knees and back, he recalled opening his eyes as he flew because he didn't believe he'd see 2011.
"I wanted to see the end coming. You're only going to see it one time and I thought that was it," he said. "It takes more than a tornado to get me."
In south-central Missouri, 19-year-old Megan Ross and her 64-year-old grandmother Loretta Anderson died at a Lecoma farm where their family lived among three mobile homes and two frame houses, Dent County Emergency Management Coordinator Brad Nash said.
A mother and an infant in the trailer were able to run to a sturdier home, he said.
"We found debris from one of the trailers a mile away," Nash said. "One of the frames of the trailer was 15 feet up in a tree. All the frames were all twisted up," and refrigerator from one of the mobile homes was found 200 yards away, he said.
Another woman was killed north of Rolla, not far from Lecoma, when a tornado destroyed her home, according to emergency managers in Phelps County.
In Arkansas, Gerald Wilson, 88, and his wife, Mamie, 78, died in their home and Dick Murray, 78, died after being caught by the storm while milking cows, Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said.
Sisemore's mother, Margie Sisemore, said her son thought a tree had come crashing through his window.
"He jumped under his bed, said it grabbed his legs — took him up through the ceiling and he landed over yonder," she said, gesturing across the street near where the Wilsons died.
At Fort Leonard Wood, a storm damaged 20 homes in a neighborhood that houses officers. The fort directed essential personnel to report for duty and that all nonessential personnel should stay away. Spokesman Jeff S. Maddy said many from the fort were traveling for the holidays.
"The good thing here is if you had to have a storm like this, it couldn't happen at better time because we have the holiday season and so many people are visiting family and friends away from Fort Leonard Wood."
In Rolla, Judy Welch, 57, said she called her husband after the storm passed to tell him their home was gone but that she was able account for their 13 dogs, including nine German shepherds. A number of cats that had scurried away hadn't returned.
"I kept praying to God. The house shook so bad, the windows were bowing and then going back to normal," Welch said.
Overnight storms damaged buildings and boat docks around Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri, leaving several boats adrift after wrenching them from their moorings. Several homes and businesses were damaged in the St. Louis County town of Sunset Hills, and a church was damaged in nearby Fenton.
In Illinois, a tornado may have touched down in Petersburg, northwest of Springfield, where about two dozen homes were damaged — some severely — and a woman was injured when her car was struck by a falling tree branch. Her injuries weren't believed to be life-threatening.
Several flights to and from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport at Highfill were delayed or canceled Friday morning until crews could clear debris littering the runway.
The region has been bracing for severe weather for much of the week. Gulf moisture riding southerly winds pushed temperatures into the upper 60s and 70s on Thursday — ahead of a cold front expected to drop temperatures into the teens by Saturday morning.
"This storm system has been showing significant signs that it could develop," said Chris Buonanno, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in North Little Rock who was monitoring the storms as they moved deeper into Arkansas. "Conditions are favorable for seeing a severe outbreak.
"In the winter you don't always have the instability" that would allow tornadoes to develop, Buonanno said. "This time, we have the instability."
While the spring brings most of the region's tornadoes, violent weather at this time of year isn't unheard of. A February 2008 outbreak killed 31 in Tennessee and 14 in Arkansas, and in January 1999 two separate outbreaks across the South killed 18, including seven in Arkansas.
A year ago, there were no tornado deaths nationwide between Oct. 9, 2009, and March 10, 2010.
Buonanno said there appears to be some association between changes in South Pacific Ocean temperatures and changes in the flow of the jet stream in the central part of the United States, causing an uptick in violent weather.
Friday's tornado fatalities are the first in the nation since Sept. 16, when a woman hit a falling tree while driving in Queens, N.Y., and a man was killed in his home at Belleville, W.Va. The deaths push this year's count to 42 nationally, and to 5 in Arkansas. The deaths in Missouri were its first of the year.
Associated Press writers Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Mo., Sophia Tareen in Chicago and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock; and AP photo stringer April Brown in Cincinnati, Ark., contributed to this report.