Deadly Tornadoes Charge through South, Midwest; 700,000 without Power

Washington Post photo by Kim Bellware
At least one person died after a storm struck the Apollo Theatre in Belvidere, Ill., on Friday, March 31, 2023.

BELVIDERE, Ill. – Punishing storms swept through a large swath of the nation Friday night into Saturday, unleashing deadly tornadoes and carving a path of destruction that killed at least 20 people in the South and Midwest while knocking out power for more than 700,000 customers.

The storms were most lethal in Tennessee, a state still reeling from Monday’s horrific school shooting in Nashville that took the lives of a half-dozen students and adults. The mayor of rural McNairy County, where at least seven people were killed, said the area was hit by two back-to-back tornadoes. It was the second one, which landed Friday just before midnight, that took lives there.

“Most people thought, ‘We made it through the first one, we will be alright.’ So they went back to their homes,” said Mayor Larry Smith. “They thought we would not get hit again. The second wave was much worse than first. It followed almost exactly the same path. It was hard to imagine that would happen. But this one was just way more intense.”

Among those who died, Smith said, were visitors from Florida who were in the area to see family.

The fresh devastation follows another cluster of Southern storms in late March that killed at least 26 people.

More than 60 tornado reports across several states were recorded by the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, bringing death to Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee. In Illinois, the roof of a concert venue was destroyed while patrons were inside at a show. The high school in an Arkansas town was eviscerated, with the astroturf from the ground at the school’s football field hurled into a house 100 yards away. At least four people were killed in that state, according to LaTresha Woodruff, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management. Another four were killed in Illinois, and the storm took three lives in Indiana.

Residents throughout the path of the storms told stories of buildings and cars getting sucked into the twisters and carried in the air. In Purdy, Tenn., where a community center once stood is now a concrete slab. “Not even rubble is left,” said Cameron Miller, the youth and music minister at the nearby First Baptist Church.

Rescue crews on Saturday were scattered throughout the areas hardest hit, using canines to search for trapped people and setting up makeshift shelters for those whose homes were destroyed.

In the city of Wynne, Ark., a community northeast of Little Rock, a tornado tore right through the central business district. Residents awoke Saturday to rescue crews looking through flattened homes and businesses, sifting the debris strewn through town. It was unlike anything longtime residents in the place that calls itself “the City with a Smile” could recall.

“We were in utter disbelief,” said Jason Butler, 46. “I’ve lived in this community since 1985. I know the whole county pretty well. Not to be able to recognize landmarks just has me in shock. You can’t even tell where you are at in some places. . . . I saw a storage building laying 3 miles down the road from where it was supposed to be.”

Lindell Staggs, 69, is the news director of KWYN, the local radio station. He was on the road when he heard the tornado was headed to town, so he raced back.

The tornado had already torn through when he arrived, tossing the artificial turf from the local high school “100 yards away in someone’s living room,” Staggs said.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) said in a news conference that it was “a very bad day” for the state. Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for the governor, confirmed to The Washington Post that Sanders asked FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell for “direct federal assistance” to help with the recovery. A readout of the conversation from the governor’s office says Criswell “committed that FEMA would work quickly to get Arkansas the resources it needs for recovery efforts.”

“We will ensure that every Arkansan who needs assistance has it,” the governor said.

President Biden spoke to Sanders, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and Wynne Mayor Jennifer Hobbs, according to a White House statement. He has been in contact with Criswell, the FEMA head.

Friday’s destruction climbed northeast, through the mid-South and into the Great Lakes region.

In Crawford County, Ill., which is along the Indiana border, three people died. Further to the north, in Belvidere, Ill., one person died and 28 were injured when the roof of the Apollo Theatre collapsed after a storm swept through the area, authorities said. More than 200 people were at the venue for a concert headlined by Florida-based metal band Morbid Angel.

Tornado sirens went off in downtown Belvidere at 7:24 p.m., 23 minutes before the roof collapsed, said Boone County Emergency Management director Dan Zaccard, but it was unknown whether those at the concert had heard or responded to the siren.

Some concertgoers were trapped under the rubble, and others rushed to free them, pulling people from the debris, officials said. Zaccard said people at the concert tried to help the person who died, a 50-year-old man.

“He was under the debris,” Zaccard said at the news conference. “He was already gone.”

Officials said the fast response by concertgoers and first responders prevented a worse tragedy.

“If it wasn’t for their quick actions, and the fact that they were planning for this storm and were prepared, things could’ve looked a lot different today. But because of that, we had lives that were saved,” Illinois Emergency Management Agency director Alicia Tate-Nadeau said, referencing the fire department’s search-and-rescue effort.

Preparation also saved lives in Sherman, Ill., near Springfield, where a tornado blasted through roughly 15 houses, destroying roofs, blowing out windows and completely leveling homes, said Sherman Mayor Trevor J. Clatfelter. Despite all this, Clatfelter said no residents were hurt or killed.

“It’s a testimony to our early warning system that there was no loss of life,” Clatfelter said. “While it’s a tragedy and a travesty, we were well prepared to take on whatever Mother Nature had for us.”

On Saturday morning, dozens of residents gathered to watch construction crews navigate the rubble around the century-old Apollo, where the crumpled marquee had crashed into the sidewalk, part of the roof lying in the middle of the street.

The theater was a go-to spot in the city, said resident Dave Weiner, 54. The former movie theater had become a popular spot for quinceañera celebrations and all-ages concerts, including the Friday show.

“It’s one of the only things for the youth to do in town; now it’s gone,” Weiner said.

He had been down the road at the Buchanan Street Pub, where it was a slower crowd than usual with the show going on.

“Between 7:30 and 8 p.m., the power started flickering, and TVs were giving out warnings,” he said.

On Saturday, police and fire crews nudged onlookers aside as some wondered what would happen to the Apollo. Belvidere, a city of 25,000 people, roughly 70 miles northwest of Chicago, is facing stiff economic challenges after a Jeep assembly plant went dark over a month ago.

Bob Flynn, 66, surveyed the damaged theater while holding Shorty, his Jack Russell terrier. “The people who owned it put a lot of time and money into it. It was good for the community,” Flynn said. “Now it’ll be like a ghost town.”

Across the country, more than 700,000 customers were without power Saturday afternoon, according to, with Ohio and Pennsylvania reporting the most outages. Strong tornadoes also hit Iowa.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency confirmed one death Saturday morning, saying on Twitter that “severe weather” struck Pontotoc County the night before.

Gov. Tate Reeves (R) tweeted Saturday that homes and businesses were damaged in northern Mississippi. Reeves met Friday with Biden, who was in Rolling Fork, Miss., to survey the devastations from last week’s devastating tornadoes.

At least 26 people were killed in that spate of storms.

This week’s storm outbreak was well-predicted. Late Friday morning, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center declared a Level 5 out of 5 “high risk” for violent storms in the Corn Belt and Mid-South. It was the first such high-risk issuance anywhere in more than two years.

The Weather Service issued more than 600 warnings of severe thunderstorms and 200 for tornadoes, both numbers ranking among the top 10 most recorded for a single day. At least four “tornado emergencies” were declared, reserved for only the most extreme tornado situations capable of producing a significant loss of life in population centers.

More rough weather was forecast for Saturday, when a system could deliver a few final severe thunderstorms to the parts of the East Coast through the afternoon, with the zones of greatest risk in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New York and New Jersey as well as southern parts of Georgia and South Carolina. There is a slight risk tornadoes in both of these zones.

Staggs, the radio news director who lives in Wynne, Ark., said some parts of his city of about 10,000 people were untouched. But the areas in the path of this one were crushed.

“People are telling me it lasted about a minute. A minute is a long time in a tornado. It seemed like forever,” Staggs said.

“When this happens to you, you just can’t believe it. You are in shock. That was pretty much the whole town last night. And this morning, everyone woke up and started to organize the recovery.”