Chris Sisemore kept his eyes open as a rare but deadly winter tornado plucked him from his rural Arkansas home and flung him across the street.
“I wanted to see the end coming. You’re only going to see it one time and I thought that was it,” he said, hours after surviving the twister. “It takes more than a tornado to get me.”
At least six people were killed and dozens injured as tornadoes fueled by unusually warm air pummeled the South and Midwest on Friday and early Saturday.
Three people died in the northwestern Arkansas hamlet of Cincinnati when a tornado touched down just before sunrise Friday, and three others died when a storm spawned by the same weather system ripped up the Missouri countryside near Rolla. Early Saturday, two people were injured in central Mississippi and several homes were damaged by a storm in Attala County. Tornado watches were in effect for parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana on Saturday morning as the system continued moving east.
Sisemore, who lives in Cincinnati, had bumps and bruises but no serious injures.
“It sucked me out of my house and carried me across the road and dropped me,” he said. “I was Superman for a while. … You’re just free-floating through the air. Trees are knocking you and smacking you down.”
In south-central Missouri, 21-year-old Megan Ross and her 64-year-old grandmother Loretta Anderson died at a Lecoma farm where their family lived among three mobile homes and two frame houses, Dent County Emergency Management Coordinator Brad Nash said. The National Weather Service determined the home was hit by a weak tornado that was 50 yards wide and traveled less than a mile.
“We found debris from one of the trailers a mile away,” Nash said. “One of the frames of the trailer was 15 feet up in a tree. All the frames were all twisted up,” and refrigerator from one of the mobile homes was found 200 yards away, he said.
North of Rolla, not far from Lecoma, 69-year-old Alice Cox was killed when a tornado destroyed a home while the Belle, Mo., woman was visiting a friend, according to Phelps County Emergency Management Director Sandy North.
In Arkansas, Gerald Wilson, 88, and his wife, Mamie, 78, died in their home and Dick Murray, 78, died after being caught by the storm while milking cows, Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said.
At Fort Leonard Wood, a tornado with winds of 136 to 165 mph demolished about a dozen homes and caused lesser damage to many more in a neighborhood that houses officers.
Spokesman Jeff S. Maddy said many from the fort were traveling for the holidays.
“The good thing here is if you had to have a storm like this, it couldn’t happen at better time because we have the holiday season and so many people are visiting family and friends away from Fort Leonard Wood.”
In Illinois, a tornado may have touched down in Petersburg, northwest of Springfield, where about two dozen homes were damaged — some severely — and a woman was injured when her car was struck by a falling tree branch. Her injuries weren’t believed to be life-threatening.
The region has been bracing for severe weather for much of the week. Gulf moisture riding southerly winds pushed temperatures into the upper 60s and 70s on Thursday — ahead of a cold front expected to drop temperatures into the teens by Saturday morning.
“This storm system has been showing significant signs that it could develop,” said Chris Buonanno, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in North Little Rock.
“In the winter you don’t always have the instability” that would allow tornadoes to develop, Buonanno said. “This time, we have the instability.”
While the spring brings most of the region’s tornadoes, violent weather at this time of year isn’t unheard of. A February 2008 outbreak killed 31 in Tennessee and 14 in Arkansas, and in January 1999 two separate outbreaks across the South killed 18, including seven in Arkansas.
A year ago, there were no tornado deaths nationwide between Oct. 9, 2009, and March 10, 2010.
Buonanno said there appears to be some association between changes in South Pacific Ocean temperatures and changes in the flow of the jet stream in the central part of the United States, causing an uptick in violent weather.
Friday’s tornado fatalities were the first in the nation since Sept. 16, when a woman hit a falling tree while driving in Queens, N.Y., and a man was killed in his home at Belleville, W.Va. The deaths push this year’s count to 42 nationally, and to 5 in Arkansas. The deaths in Missouri were its first of the year.