By ADRIAN SAINZ, ANDREW DeMILLO and BEN FINLEY (Associated Press)
WYNNE, Ark. (AP) — Residents across a wide swath of the U.S. raced Sunday to assess the destruction from fierce storms that spawned possibly dozens of tornadoes from the South and the Midwest into the Northeast, killing at least 32 people.
The storms tore a path through the Arkansas capital and also collapsed the roof of a packed concert venue in Illinois, stunning people throughout the region with the scope of the damage.
The number of deaths continued to grow Sunday.
“While we are still assessing the full extent of the damage, we know families across America are mourning the loss of loved ones, desperately waiting for news of others fighting for their lives, and sorting through the rubble of their homes and businesses,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Biden earlier declared broad areas of the country major disaster areas, making federal resources and financial aid available for recovery.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Arkansas, where at least five people were killed, already had declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard.
Confirmed or suspected tornadoes in 11 states destroyed homes and businesses, splintered trees and laid waste to neighborhoods.
The National Weather Service confirmed Sunday that a tornado was responsible for damage to several homes near Bridgeville, Delaware. One person was found dead inside a house heavily damaged by the storm Saturday night, Delaware State Police reported.
It may take days to confirm all the recent tornadoes. The dead included at least nine in one Tennessee county, five in Indiana and four in Illinois.
Other deaths from the storms that hit Friday night into Saturday were reported in Alabama and Mississippi.
Residents of Wynne, Arkansas, a community of about 8,000 people 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Memphis, Tennessee, woke Saturday to find the high school’s roof shredded and its windows blown out. At least four people died.
Ashley Macmillan said she, her husband and their children huddled with their dogs in a bathroom as a tornado passed, “praying and saying goodbye to each other, because we thought we were dead.” A falling tree seriously damaged their home, but they escaped unhurt.
Chainsaws buzzed, as bulldozers plowed into debris. Utility crews restored power as some neighborhoods began recovery.
Tennessee recorded at least 15 deaths, including nine fatalities in McNairy County, east of Memphis, according to Patrick Sheehan, director the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee drove to the county Saturday to tour the destruction and comfort residents. He said the storm capped the “worst” week of his time as governor, coming days after a school shooting in Nashville that killed six people including a family friend whose funeral he and his wife just attended.
“It’s terrible what has happened in this community, this county, this state,” Lee said. “But it looks like your community has done what Tennessean communities do, and that is rally and respond.”
Rachel Milam lived in the basement with her 6-year-old daughter, while her mother and her mother’s boyfriend lived upstairs in their home on the outskirts of Waynesboro, Tennessee.
All squeezed into the bathroom of the cinder block basement Friday night as the tornado approached and made whooshing sounds like a washing machine.
“As it ripped the roof off, the shower curtain fell,” Milam, 26, said Sunday. “So I’m trying to dig through the shower curtain and see. I saw darkness and then rain started to fall.”
Then absolute terror.
“And the house — I watched it pick up and move … about six inches and then pick up and it was gone.”
“I was just thinking it’s gonna take the tub, like we’re going to be gone,” she said.
A piece of wood fell over them. So did a mirror. “We were fine and just thankful that we made it out alive,” Milam said.
Milam, who works as a nurse, soon joined other neighbors in digging people out from wrecked homes. One woman had a laceration to her face and other parts of her body and was flown out by a helicopter. Another man was freed from the rubble of his home by rescuers who used chainsaws to slice through the debris.
Jeffrey Day said he called his daughter after seeing on the news that their community of Adamsville was being hit. Huddled in a closet with her 2-year-old son as the storm passed over, she answered the phone screaming.
“She kept asking me, ‘What do I do, daddy?’” Day said, tearing up. “I didn’t know what to say.”
After the storm passed, his daughter crawled out of her destroyed home and drove to nearby family.
Elsewhere, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker traveled Sunday to Belvidere to visit the Apollo Theatre, which partially collapsed as about 260 people were attending a heavy metal concert.
Frederick Livingston, Jr., was pulled from the rubble but didn’t survive. He had gone to enjoy the concert with his son, Alex.
“I couldn’t save him,” his son told WLS-TV. The father and son were standing side by side when debris began raining down. “It happened so fast.”
The governor said 48 others were treated in hospitals, with five in critical condition.
Pritzker also planned to visit Crawford County, about 230 miles (370 kilometers) south of Chicago, where three people were killed and eight injured when a tornado hit around New Hebron.
“We’ve had emergency crews digging people out of their basements because the house is collapsed on top of them, but luckily they had that safe space to go to,” Sheriff Bill Rutan said at a news conference.
That tornado was not far from where three people died in Indiana’s Sullivan County, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) southwest of Indianapolis. Several people were rescued overnight, with reports of as many as 12 people injured.
DeMillo reported from Little Rock and Finley from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press writers around the country contributed to this report, including Kimberlee Kruesi in Adamsville, Tennessee, Harm Venhuizen in Belvidere, Illinois, Corey Williams in Detroit, and Ron Todt in Philadelphia.
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