TUPELO, Miss. — Tornadoes flattened homes and businesses Monday, killing at least nine people in Mississippi and Alabama and unleashing damaging hail and flash floods.
Tens of thousands of customers were without power in Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi, and thousands of people hunkered down in basements and shelters as the National Weather Service issued watches and warnings for more tornadoes throughout the night in Alabama.
Weather satellites from space showed tumultuous clouds arcing across much of the South.
The system was the latest onslaught of severe weather a day after a half-mile-wide tornado carved an 80-mile path of destruction through the suburbs of Little Rock, Ark., killing at least 15. Tornadoes also killed one person each in Oklahoma and Iowa on Sunday.
Officials said the death toll in Vilonia, Ark., could have been worse if residents hadn't piled into underground storm shelters and fortified safe rooms after listening to forecasts or hearing warning sirens blare through their neighborhoods.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said officials didn't yet have a count of the missing. He said the dead included a woman who was in a safe room but was hit by debris that went through the door.
"Mother nature and tornadoes, sometimes you can't explain how that works," Beebe said.
Rarely have twisters struck the same town with such ferocity along much the same path, but for Vilonia, the tornado was a nightmare revisited. Nearly three years ago to the day, a tornado swept through this city of about 3,800, snapping power lines, ripping apart homes and leaving them exposed to the torrential rains that followed.
For some, like Karen Seeds, a retired Kmart clerk who survived the earlier storm, it was almost too much to bear.
"You could hear part of the house falling, and I'm like, 'I can't believe this is happening again,'" she said. "It was just shock and numbness."
While Vilonia officials celebrated the success of a safe room at the high school, they also acknowledged that they had not planned to construct such a space in the new middle school that had been set to open this year. When the tornado passed through, the multimillion-dollar school suffered significant damage.
In the nearby town of Mayflower, Ark., a woman died despite her efforts to wait out the storm in a safe room.
"House is gone, the safe room is still there, but she died in the safe room when debris hit the door to the safe room," Beebe said. "She was doing everything she knew how to do, and, still, she lost her life."
In Mississippi, emergency officials attending a late-night news conference Monday with Gov. Phil Bryant said up to seven people have been reported killed in that state. Jim Craig, director of state Health Protection said officials were working with coroners to confirm the total.
One of those deaths involved a woman who was killed when her car either hydroplaned or was blown off a road during the storm in Verona, south of Tupelo, Lee County Coroner Carolyn Gillentine Green said.
In northern Alabama, the coroner's office confirmed two deaths Monday in a twister that caused extensive damage west of the city of Athens, Limestone County emergency director Rita White. More victims could be trapped in the wreckage of damaged buildings, but rescuers could not reach some areas because of downed power lines, White said.
Numerous watches and warnings were still in effect in Alabama shortly before midnight Monday, with forecasters warning the severe weather could continue all night.
In Tupelo, a town of about 35,000 in northeastern Mississippi, every building in a two-block area south of U.S. 78 had suffered damage, officials told a reporter on the scene. Some buildings had their roofs sheared off, while power lines had been knocked down completely or bent at 45-degree angles. Road crews were using heavy machinery to clear off other streets.
Mississippi Republican Sen. Giles Ward huddled in a bathroom with his wife, four other family members and their 19-year-old dog Monday as a tornado destroyed his two-story brick house in Louisville, seat of Winston County.
"For about 30 seconds, it was unbelievable," Ward said. "It's about as awful as anything we've gone through."
He estimated that 30 houses in his neighborhood, Jordan Circle, were either destroyed or heavily damaged. He said six people were reported trapped in a basement in another home in the subdivision.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.