CRYSTAL SPRINGS, Ark. — Powerful spring storms roared through parts of the South on Friday, toppling trees, smashing buildings and killing at least nine people, including two sets of parents and children who were huddled together as the winds raged outside their homes.
It was the deadliest storm of the season. Several tornados accompanied the onslaught, but much of the damage was attributed to straight-line winds — sudden, violent downbursts that struck with hurricane force in the middle of the night.
As the storm howled through Crystal Springs, Eden Davis woke up, grabbed her young child and sat on the edge of the bed waiting to pull a mattress over both of them to shield the pair from flying debris. “I’ve never been so nervous about a storm,” she said. “I was asleep, but my fiance called me and told me to wake up and that I needed to watch the news because the weather was getting real bad.”
Forecasters warned of approaching danger as much as three days earlier, but the winds up to 80 mph and repeated lightning strikes cut a path of destruction across a region so accustomed to violent weather that many people ignored the risk — or slept through it.
The storms began late Thursday in Oklahoma, where at least five tornadoes touched down and two people were killed. The system then pushed into Arkansas, killing seven more. Dozens of others were hurt.
By midday Friday, the storms marched into Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi. At least three tornados touched down in Mississippi, causing widespread damage but only one serious injury.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said he had never seen the state have so many deaths from straight-line winds. Tornadoes and floods cause most of Arkansas storm-related fatalities. “Just trees blowing on people’s residences — I don’t recall anything even approaching this,” Beebe said.
Unlike tornadoes, which develop from columns of rotating air, straight-line winds erupt from a thunderstorm in unpredictable downdrafts, then spread across the landscape in all directions. Teams from the National Weather Service worked to learn more about what caused the damage.
At Crystal Springs, lightning split a tree that fell into a home, killing an 18-month-old girl and her father as they slept. In Little Rock, winds knocked a tree into a home, killing a woman and her 8-year-old son.
In the Arkansas town of Bald Knob, 6-year-old Devon Adams died when the top of a tree crashed through his home while he was sleeping.
Residents of the small town of Tushka, Okla., wondered what would become of their community after a twister damaged or destroyed nearly every home along the two main streets. The only school, a collection of buildings housing grades K-12, is all but gone. “It’s hard to deal with because we’re a small community with limited resources,” Mayor Brickie Griffin said.
At least 25 people were hurt as the tornado plowed through the town of 350 before dawn. At least a dozen homes and businesses were destroyed.
Stacy George, who lives across the street from the school, slowly recovered items from the rubble of her home, which had shattered windows and a collapsed roof. A pickup truck had been blown into the side of the house. But George’s husband and 20-month-old son survived. “We’re basically starting over,” she said, laying out clothes, cowboy boots, a penny jar, a lamp and a chair in her driveway.
“We’re trying to salvage what we can,” she said. “It’s devastating. It’s just horrible. Thank God we have so much help.”
Easton Crow, a junior at Tushka High School, drove by the building after the storm. He saw missing roofs, crushed vehicles and textbooks scattered. “I’m heartbroken. This is where most of us grew up,” Crow said. “I’m just in awe that in a few seconds, memories that have been built were taken.”
The school was to stay closed for the rest of the academic year, and officials were looking for an alternate place to hold classes.
Gilbert Wilson, Atoka County’s emergency management director, said witnesses reported seeing two tornadoes that merged into a single twister. The weather service confirmed a tornado hit the area.