Tornadoes fueled by unusually warm air pummeled the South and Midwest on Friday, killing at least six people and injuring dozens more across Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Tornadoes fueled by unusually warm air pummeled the South and Midwest on Friday, killing at least six people and injuring dozens more across Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois.
Three people died in the northwestern Arkansas town 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 also were reported in the St. Louis area.
Storms later Friday knocked out power to more than 19,000 Mississippi residents, while broad swaths of Louisiana and Mississippi were under severe weather watches and warnings.
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“It sucked me out of my house and carried me across the road and dropped me,” Chris Sisemore of Cincinnati said Friday. “I was Superman for a while. … You’re just free-floating through the air.”
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, 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, Megan Ross, 21, and her grandmother Loretta Anderson, 64, 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 another trailer were able to run to a sturdier home, he said. The National Weather Service later determined the homes were hit by a weak tornado that was 50 yards wide and traveled less than a mile.
“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 a 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 a home, according to emergency managers in Phelps County.
Phelps County Emergency Management Director Sandy North identified that victim as Alice Cox, 69, of Belle, Mo., who was in the Rolla area visiting a friend.
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.
At Fort Leonard Wood, a tornado with winds of 136 to 165 mph demolished about a dozen homes and caused lesser damage to many more in a neighborhood that houses officers.
The storm downed power lines, and about 8,000 utility customers were left in the dark in Missouri, said Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
He said the Red Cross was providing motel vouchers to people who had been displaced as temperatures were expected to dip, and Fort Leonard Wood officials also had plans to shelter displaced troops and their families.
“The most important essentials are a roof over your head and warmth,” O’Connell said. “All efforts will be made to ensure people are warm, fed and housed.”
An overnight tornado of undetermined strength damaged buildings and boat docks near Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri, leaving several boats adrift after wrenching them from their moorings. Several homes and businesses were damaged around noon in the St. Louis County town of Sunset Hills, and a church was damaged in nearby Fenton.
A survey team from the National Weather Service determined a tornado had hit Sunset Hills.
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.
The National Weather Service said spotters in Mississippi reported seeing a possible tornado over Interstate 55 near Jackson on Friday afternoon. There were no reports of injuries. Downed trees and power lines were reported in the Jackson area, and some buildings were damaged.
Entergy reported more than 19,000 outages in Mississippi by late Friday, most in Hinds and Rankin counties.
Several flights to and from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport at Highfill were delayed or canceled Friday until crews could clear debris littering the runway.
The region had been bracing for severe weather for much of the week. Gulf moisture riding southerly winds pushed temperatures into the upper 60s and 70s Thursday ahead of a cold front expected to drop temperatures into the teens by Saturday morning.
“In the winter you don’t always have the instability” that would allow tornadoes to develop, said Chris Buonanno, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. “This time, we have the instability.”
While spring brings most of the region’s tornadoes, violent weather in winter 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.
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.
The Friday’s deaths pushed 2010’s count to 42 nationally.
Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth and 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.