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.
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.
In Faulkner County, sheriff Andy Shock told the Associated Press there is "utter devastation," and that family members are searching for missing relatives. Shock said there is widespread confusion and a medical triage area had to be opened in a Mayflower home-improvement store's parking lot to treat the injured.
The American Red Cross has opened two emergency shelters and is supporting four
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, including scenes like this one near Mayflower:
"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."
Storm chasers were on the scene shortly after, and Brett Adair told The Weather Channel that they assisted injured residents in nearby communities affected by the tornado. After hitting Mayflower, the tornado also left severe damage in Vilonia and El Paso.
Becky Naylor, 57, of Mayflower, said up to 22 people "packed like sardines" into her storm cellar as the tornado approached.
"People were pulling off the highways and were just running in," said Naylor. Men held the cellar doors tight to prevent the tornado from ripping 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."
After Sunday's tornado struck the small town of Vilonia, Arkansas, resident Tom Marsh said "it was like a war zone." Among the ruins there 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.
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By Sean Breslin Published: Apr 28, 2014, 1:08 PM EDT weather.com