VILONIA, Ark. (AP) – Three years after a tornado devastated the Little Rock suburb of Vilonia, its residents again huddled in storm cellars as the most powerful twister this year carved an 80-mile path of destruction through suburbs north of the state capital, killing at least 16 people.
Emergency officials began to pick through the rubble to look for survivors as the sun rose Monday morning. The tornado that touched down around 7 p.m. Sunday about 10 miles west of Little Rock grew to be half a mile wide and remained on the ground for much of that route, authorities said.
It was among a rash of tornadoes and heavy storms that rumbled across the center and south of the country overnight. The National Weather Service warned that the destructive storms were expected to continue Monday in the South and Mississippi Valley.
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 had been 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 National Weather Service in North Little Rock said it was virtually certain that the storm that hit Vilonia and nearby Mayflower would be rated as the nation's strongest twister to date this year.
"It has the potential to be EF3 or greater," said meteorologist Jeff Hood. EF3 storms have winds greater than 136 mph. "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."
Brandon Morris, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said crews were clearing debris as soon as the sun started to come up Monday.
"Right now, the main focus is life safety," Morris said. "We're trying to make sure everyone is accounted for."
He said officials are also looking at the environmental impact. "Making sure utilities are cut off in the area. We don't want anything to get, any fires to start or anything like that."
Another twister killed a person in Quapaw, Okla., before crossing into Kansas to the north and destroying 60 to 70 homes and injuring 25 people in the city of Baxter Springs, according to authorities in Kansas. A suspected tornado struck near Plain Dealing in northwest Louisiana.
The overall death toll stood at 17 early Monday.
Among the ruins in Vilonia was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this fall.
"There's just really nothing there anymore. We're probably going to have to start all over again," Vilonia Schools Superintendent Frank Mitchell said after surveying what was left of the building.
That tornado didn't form until night was setting in, so the full extent of the damage wouldn't be known until after sunrise on Monday.
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.
The country had enjoyed a relative lull in violent weather and didn't record the first tornado death until Sunday, when a North Carolina infant who was injured by a twister Friday died at a hospital. But the system that moved through the Plains, Midwest and South on Sunday produced tornadoes that struck several states, including also Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.
From communities west of Little Rock to others well north of the capital, emergency workers and volunteers were going door-to-door checking for victims.
"It turned pitch black," said Mark Ausbrooks, who was at his parents' home in Mayflower when the storm arrived. "I ran and got pillows to put over our heads and ... all hell broke loose."
"My parents' home, it's gone completely," he said.
Becky Naylor, of Mayflower, said she and her family went to their storm cellar after hearing that tornado debris was falling in nearby Morgan. Naylor, 57, said there were between 20 and 22 people "packed like sardines" in the cellar.
"People were pulling off the highways and were just running in," she said.
Men held the cellar doors shut while the tornado's winds tried to rip them apart.
"It sounded like a constant rolling, roaring sound," she said. "Trees were really bending and the light poles were actually shaking and moving. That's before we shut the door and we've only shut the door to the storm cellar two times."
The other time was in 2011, during an EF-2 tornado that followed nearly the same path and killed at least four people.
"This storm was much stronger," Vilonia Mayor James Firestone told ABC's "Good Morning America" early Monday. "The devastation was just tremendous."
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management raised the Arkansas death toll to 16 early Monday — 10 in Faulkner County, five in Pulaski County and one in White County.
At a news conference in the Philippines, President Barack Obama sent his condolences and promised the government would help in the recovery.
"Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild as long as it takes," Obama said.
Storm ratings for Sunday's twisters were not immediately available. Before Sunday, the country had not had a tornado rated EF3 or higher since Nov. 17, a streak of 160 days, the fourth-longest on record. This also would be the latest date for a storm rated EF3 or higher. The previous latest big storm for a year was March 31, 2002.
Sunday was the third anniversary of a 122-tornado day, which struck parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia and killed 316 people.