TUPELO, Miss. — At least three tornados flattened homes and businesses, flipped trucks over on highways and injured an unknown number of people in Mississippi and Alabama on Monday as a massive, dangerous storm system passed over several states in the South, also threatening to unleash severe thunderstorms, damaging hail and flash floods.
People in the path of the huge system were on edge as the National Weather Service posted tornado watches and warnings around Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Forecasters said the system is the latest onslaught of severe weather that triggered deadly tornadoes in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Iowa on Sunday, killing at least 18 people.
The storm was so huge it was visible from space, photographed by weather satellites that showed tumultuous clouds arcing across much of the South.
Injuries were reported in Tupelo, a community of about 35,000 in northeastern Mississippi; and in Louisville, the seat of Winston County about 90 miles northeast of Jackson, Miss., where about 6,600 people live, said Mississippi Health Department spokesman Jim Craig. He said the number and seriousness of the injuries were not known because relief efforts were still under way. Television footage showed trucks being flipped over on state roads.
Bruce Ridgeway, vice president of North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, said that hospital received six people with non-life-threatening injuries. Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton said damage was extensive in neighborhoods in the city. Authorities sent teams to the region even before the storm system’s arrival.
A tornado damaged the Winston Medical Center in Louisville, Miss., said Jack Mazurak, a spokesman for the Jackson-based University of Mississippi Medical Center, which received a trauma patient from the county and was sending personnel to help triage patients on the ground.
Emergency officials said a tornado also touched down in Limestone County, Alabama, Monday, causing widespread damage, but they could not say whether there were injuries or deaths.
A strong storm barreling through southeastern Kentucky damaged homes and businesses and left more than 6,000 customers without power, said Harlan County Emergency Management Director David McGill. No injuries were reported.
In Memphis, Tenn., officials declared a state of emergency in a county southwest of Nashville because of flash flooding. Authorities urged people there to seek higher ground after several homes and some business were flooded in Maury County.
On Sunday evening, a half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the suburbs of Little Rock, Ark., killing at least 15 people, flattening rows of homes, shredding cars along a highway and demolishing a new school before it even had a chance to open.
Officials said the death toll could have been worse if residents hadn’t piled into underground storm shelters and fortified safe rooms after listening to forecasts on TV and radio, getting cellphone alerts or calls or texts from loved ones, and hearing sirens blare through their neighborhoods.
Most of the dead in Arkansas were killed in their homes in and around Vilonia, population 3,800. Firefighters on Monday searched for anyone trapped amid the piles of splintered wood and belongings strewn across yards. Hospitals took in more than 100 patients.
The tornado that hit the town and nearby Mayflower was probably the nation’s strongest so far this year on the 0-to-5 EF scale, with the potential to be at least an EF3, which means winds greater than 136 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hood said.
It wrecked cars and trucks along Interstate 40 north of Little Rock. Also among the ruins was a new $14 million intermediate school that had been set to open this fall.