HOUSTON, April 1 (Xinhua) -- An unusually massive outbreak of thunderstorms, including devastating tornadoes, on Friday struck at least 15 U.S. states in the South and the Midwest, causing multiple injuries, severe damage and widespread outages.
From northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, including Chicago and Milwaukee, tornadoes watches extend nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) all the way to Mississippi and Texas, affecting tens of thousands of people on Friday, according to meteorologists with AccuWeather, a U.S. weather TV network.
The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS), when expecting numerous tornadoes in a rare "high risk" forecast for Friday and Friday evening, described the situation as "particularly dangerous." SERIOUS DAMAGE
Altogether, the NWS was tracking about 18 tornado reports, mostly in Arkansas and Iowa. At least two of them were confirmed on Friday afternoon in Arkansas.
The state's capital city Little Rock took a direct hit by a strong tornado, resulting in dozens of injuries and severe damage. City officials said it was too soon to determine the number of casualties.
Another tornado caused damage in Wynne, the county seat and largest city of Cross County, Arkansas, before moving eastward into western Tennessee.
There was "total destruction throughout the town" and dozens of residents were trapped following the tornado, said Wynne Police Chief Richard Dennis. There are unconfirmed reports of injuries in Wynne as search and rescue efforts are ongoing.
"Significant damage has occurred in Central Arkansas," Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted.
The NWS Little Rock office continued to issue severe thunderstorm warnings late Friday afternoon, saying the upcoming storm "will contain tennis ball sized hail." There have been reports of hail across parts of Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas as of Friday afternoon.
Parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas were also at risk for widespread fires due to dry conditions, high winds and warm temperatures, the NWS said.
The major tornado outbreak also caused damage in Iowa and Tennessee on Friday, the weather.com reported. Several tornadoes have touched down in eastern Iowa, including near Iowa City, while a pair of twin tornadoes were spotted, said meteorologists with the weather forecast website.
As of 6:00 pm local time (2300 GMT), more than 92,000 customers were without power across Arkansas, according to PowerOutage.us. Data from the outage tracking website also showed that over 21,000 customers were without power in neighboring Oklahoma, where wind gusts at the speed of 50-60 mph fueled fast-moving grass fires. Outages were also reported in a number of central and southern U.S. states.
AccuWeather meteorologists said the threat of dangerous severe storms, including tornadoes, will last into early Saturday. RISING CASUALTIES
At least three people were killed while dozens injured by the strong tornadoes on Friday.
A person died in North Little Rock, as a small shopping center, together with multiple homes and other businesses in the city, was reportedly shredded.
In Wynne, another tornado claimed at least two lives on Friday evening, said Arkansas emergency manager Rebekah Magnus.
In Belvidere City, Illinois, one was killed and 28 others injured after the roof of a theatre collapsed Friday night as an intense storm swept through the area.
Of the people injured, five are in serious condition, local media reported Friday. Some 260 people were in the theatre watching concert at the time, said Belvidere Fire Department Chief Shawn Schadle.
Multiple ambulances have been called to the scene. Belvidere Police Chief Shane Woody described the scene after the collapse as "chaos, absolute chaos."
A massive tornado leveled a town in southern U.S. state Mississippi a week ago, claiming 25 lives. The 26th death was reported in Alabama during the same round of turbulent weather.
Friday's "intense supercell thunderstorms" are only expected to become more common in middle and southern U.S. states due to rising temperatures around the world, experts said. And deadly and dangerous tornadoes are forecast to continue on Tuesday and again the following weekend.
At least the first 10 days of April will be rough, Accuweather meteorologist Brandon Buckingham said earlier this week.
The year of 2023 has already seen more than 300 tornadoes and 31 deaths across the country even before Friday, said a USA Today report, citing Storm Prediction Center data.
It is the third-most-active start to a year on record in the United States, said the report.