Three years after a tornado devastated the Little Rock suburb of Vilonia, its residents found themselves huddling in the dark early Monday wondering how they would rebuild again after the most powerful tornado yet this year carved a path through their city and others nearby, killing at least 16 people.
The tornado touched down Sunday about 10 miles west of Little Rock at around 7 p.m., then carved an 80-mile path of destruction as it passed through or near several suburbs north of the state capital, including Vilonia. It grew to be a half-mile wide and remained on the ground for much of that route, authorities said.
Among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that was 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.
The tornado was the largest of several produced by a powerful storm system that rumbled through the central and southern U.S. 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 death was reported in Baxter Springs, but it wasn't yet known if it was caused by the tornado, making the Oklahoma death the only confirmed death from Sunday's storms outside of Arkansas. The overall death toll stood at 17 early Monday.
The tornado that hit Arkansas didn't form until night was setting in, so the full extent of the damage wouldn't be known until after sunrise on Monday.
In northwest Louisiana, a teenager suffered minor injuries when a tornado touched down there early Monday. Bill Davis, a spokesman for the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office, said the tornado hit around 3:15 a.m. Monday about six miles west of Plain Dealing in mostly a rural area. The teen suffered cuts and bruises and his home was heavily damaged.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center said more storms were expected Monday in the South and Mississippi Valley.
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 to continue their journeys, while gawkers held smartphones to their windows to offer a grim glimpse of the destruction.
State troopers went vehicle-to-vehicle to check on motorists and said 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.
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 was gone — 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.
At a news conference in the Philippines, President Barack Obama sent his condolences to those affected by the tornado and promised that the federal government would help in the recovery.
"Your country will be there to help you recover and rebuild as long as it takes," Obama said.