Tornado outbreak batters Arkansas; several states in South, Midwest face deluge of severe weather

Written by on March 31, 2023

A tornado outbreak caused widespread havoc Friday evening as federal forecasters warned of rare twister emergencies and confirmed tornadoes across several states.

A tornado ripped through neighborhoods on the west side of Little Rock, Arkansas destroying homes and apartment buildings, overturning vehicles and prompting search and rescue efforts. Early reports indicated at least two dozen people hurt, some critically.

Another tornado ripped through Wynne, in eastern Arkansas, causing widespread damage. At least seven tornadoes and large hail were confirmed by the weather service across Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, and Tennessee.

The storms will continue throughout the evening, with the National Weather Service warning supercell storms were increasing the threat of tornadoes across east central Arkansas near the Mississippi and Tennessee borders. Residents were urged to take cover in basements and interior rooms away from windows. 

The storms sped across the Mississippi Valley Friday just a week after another tornado outbreak killed 21 people in Mississippi, including a long-track twister that destroyed much of Rolling Fork and brought President Joe Biden to the community on Friday.

Forecasters also are warning the Mississippi Valley will face another round of severe storms and a potential tornado outbreak on Tuesday.

Is a tornado watch or warning worse?:What to know about preparing for these violent storms

READ MORE:Bad tornado season in US is set to get worse

The “tornado emergency” in Little Rock was one of several issued as the powerful storm system moved eastward along the Mississippi River valley. A tornado emergency is issued when a severe threat to human life or catastrophic damage is imminent or ongoing.

Heavy damage and debris was reported by the city’s fire department, and in photos and videos posted online.

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted: “Significant damage has occurred in Central Arkansas….Praying for all those who were and remain in the path of this storm. Arkansans must continue to stay weather aware as storms are continuing to move through.”

The interior of store is damaged after a severe storm swept through Little Rock, Ark., Friday, March 31, 2023.

The weather service issued a separate tornado emergency late Friday afternoon for the towns of Parkin and Earle in eastern Arkansas, when the tornado struck Wynne. “Take cover now,” forecasters said, warning of a catastrophic damage threat. The tornado prompted emergency responders to try to close a portion of Interstate 55 at Marion, just west of Memphis. 

The twisters were moving at speeds of 55 to 60 mph. 

More than 80,000 electric customers in Arkansas were out of power Friday evening, according to, which tracks outages. Outages were also reported in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. 

On Friday morning, an estimated 89 million people in at least 15 states – from Texas to Alabama in the South all the way up north to Wisconsin and Michigan – were warned of a “high risk” from the “explosive” storms, with a chance for violent, long-track tornadoes. It was the first time in two years the center had issued a “high risk” warning, and this time there were two. 

On Friday, two rare "high risk" zones for severe weather were issued by the Storm Prediction Center, one centered near Memphis and the other on the border between Iowa and Illinois. It's the first time in more than two years the SPC has issued a high risk.

Meanwhile, heavy snow and strong winds were produced blizzard-like conditions in South Dakota. 

A car is upturned in a Kroger parking lot after a severe storm swept through Little Rock, Ark., Friday, March 31, 2023.

What is a tornado emergency?

A  step above a tornado warning, issued by the National Weather Service in “exceedingly rare” situations, when: 

A severe threat to human life or catastrophic damage is imminent or ongoing.

Visual or radar evidence such as a reliable source confirms a tornado or a radar picks up the signature of a ball of debris inside the tornado.

Biden visited tornado-ravaged Mississippi town

President Joe Biden on Friday visited areas severely damaged by tornadoes last week. Rolling Fork and nearby Silver City, Mississippi, lost around 300 homes and businesses, with hundreds of other buildings badly damaged. 

The president and first lady Jill Biden surveyed tornado damage, met with affected homeowners and first responders and received an operational briefing from federal and state officials. 

They were joined by Gov. Tate Reeves, Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Rep. Bennie Thompson.

Biden announced the federal government will cover the total cost of the state’s emergency measures for the next 30 days, including overtime for first responders and debris cleanup.

Is a tornado watch or warning worse?:What to know about preparing for these violent storms

Tornado preparedness tips

It’s always important to have an emergency plan in place in the event of severe weather, including designating a “safe place” in your home, preferably away from windows and in an interior room, the weather service says.

Keeping supplies handy like flashlights, batteries, food, water, clothes and shoes 

Have multiple ways to get updates, including push alerts, local TV reports, weather apps and a NOAA weather radio.

“I think the No. 1 message that people need to have is that they need to be prepared,” said Pam Knox, director of the University of Georgia Weather Network. “Don’t rely on outdoor sirens as a warning. Instead, have a weather radio or smartphone at the ready. 

“And know where you’re going to go if you hear a tornado warning,” she said. 

It’s been a bad start to the USA’s tornado season

With 311 tornadoes through Thursday, the U.S. had already seen the third-most-active start to a year on record.

“We should be at about 200 tornadoes for today’s date,” Victor Gensini, associate professor at Northern Illinois University, told USA TODAY. “So we’re running about 100 tornadoes above average, and we have been the entire year.” 

READ MORE:Bad tornado season in US is set to get worse

US weather watches and warnings

Blizzard warning issued in Plains, upper Great Lakes

The same storm system is expected to produce a band of heavy snow, with blizzard conditions possible from the central Plains to the upper Great Lakes region from Friday to Saturday, Larson said. 

The weather service issued a blizzard warning from Friday afternoon through Saturday morning for a large swath of South Dakota  and neighboring states.

Some spots in South Dakota could pick up as much as 20 inches of snow from the storm, the weather service said. 

More winter weather in Northwest

Meanwhile in parts of Oregon and Washington, a winter storm warning is in effect through Sunday, with snow accumulations up to 48 inches possible at

higher elevations in the Cascades, and winds  of up to 40 mph. 

Winter storm map

National weather radar

More coverage from USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press; Dinah Voyles Pulver, USA TODAY

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