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Twisters rake deadly path across 4 states; 7 die

Image: A tornado damaged home is seen through a cracked windshield of a truck
A tornado damaged home is seen through a cracked windshield of a truck on Saturday. Mike Wintroath / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Residents of communities across Arkansas on Saturday faced the wreckage of homes torn apart by violent weather that has pushed this year's storm death toll in the southern state up to 24.

"You can see the bags under the eyes of the people who consistently over and over again are called on to respond," Gov. Mike Beebe said Friday. "That's their job and that's our job and we'll do it, no matter how many hours it takes or how many days it takes."

Seven Arkansans were killed Friday in thunderstorms that tore up parts of four states, and two dozen or more were injured. Emergency officials initially reported eight deaths but revised the figure downward Saturday. Meteorologists said more than 25 tornadoes may have touched down across middle America late Thursday and early Friday.

On Saturday, the National Weather Service posted tornado watches during the morning for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as an arc of strong thunderstorms rolled across the region. One Saturday morning storm damaged homes in southeastern Louisiana, and state police Sgt. James O'Quinn said a highway in St. Tammany Parish was blocked by water as much as 3 feet deep.

Storms create destructive path
Destruction in Arkansas on Friday ran from Siloam Springs near the Oklahoma line to tiny communities along the Mississippi River. Powerful tornadoes killed 13 people in the state on Feb. 5 and another person on Jan. 8.

"This year it just seems like we're getting pounded," Van Buren County Sheriff Scott Bradley said.

Eighteen Arkansas counties reported damage, including some 400 homes damaged or destroyed, Renee Preslar, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said Saturday.

"There is clean up going on everywhere," Preslar said.

Storms ripped off roofs and toppled train cars near Kansas City, Missouri. Oklahoma endured severe hail, and tents tumbled at an open-air market in eastern Texas.

'Everyone was afraid'
In Arkansas, members of a work crew ran inside the Southside Baptist Church just north of the Van Buren County town of Damascus after a neighbor warned them of the coming storm. They said it was total silence as the storm approached.

"Everybody was afraid," said worker Jesus Estrada, 22.

After the storm, he and others went down the street and aided firefighters who were helping people out of their homes.

Nearly 6,000 homes and businesses lost power in Arkansas.

Beebe said Arkansans would cope with the latest in a string of bad weather that has included a foot of snow, a foot of rain and severe flooding that killed three.

"We will fight through it, we will get through it and we will help our neighbors," he said. "We'll do what's necessary to take care of our people."

Six of the deaths Friday were in two counties, Conway and Van Buren, hit hard by the February tornado. That storm, with a 122-mile-long track, had wind estimated at 166 mph to 200 mph. Friday's tornado Friday had wind of 135 mph to 165 mph.

In central Arkansas, a man, a woman and a preschool-age child died when the storm destroyed their house just south of Bee Branch, in Van Buren County. "There wasn't anything left," Bradley said.

Tree crushes teen
Near the Arkansas-Oklahoma line, a 15-year-old girl died early Friday when a storm toppled a tree onto her family's home in Siloam Springs. She and her 10-year-old brother were sleeping in bunk beds; the boy survived with minor injuries and was pulled from the wreckage by neighbors.

"She was dead on top of him with the tree on top of her. It was just the mattress in between them, and he was screaming `Get it off of me! Get it off of me!'" Chad Tilghman said.

A man and one of his sons died near Birdtown in Conway County; officials initially reported the death of a second son but Saturday he remained hospitalized. The seventh death was reported in Pulaski County, south of Little Rock.

Greg Carbin, a meteorologist for the national Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said as many as 25 tornadoes may have stuck Oklahoma, Arkansas, eastern Kansas and western Missouri. Other severe weather approached Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, forcing the cancellation of more than 200 flights.