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Death toll nears 20 as storm takes aim at eastern U.S.

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) – A violent storm packing high winds and heavy rains ripped through Southern and Midwestern sections of the United States as it headed east on Saturday, leaving 18 dead and scores injured, according to officials and media reports.

Drone footage showed the massive damage caused by a tornado in Arkansas to neighborhoods in the Little Rock area and to a shopping mall on Friday (March 31).

At least five people were killed in Arkansas, according to officials, as first responders sifted through debris for more possible victims after tornadoes sliced through the state on Friday.

Officials also reported one death in Illinois and three in Indiana, while local media on Saturday said there were seven deaths in McNairy County, Tennessee, at the Mississippi border. Fox News reported one death each in Alabama and Mississippi.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch for Saturday afternoon in parts of central New York state and central and eastern Pennsylvania, with wind gusts of up to 65 miles (105 km) per hour.

Rain and winds were also expected in eastern Ohio and parts of West Virginia, according to the weather service.

Severe, high winds with gusts up to 60 mph (100 kph) were also forecast for Washington, D.C., through Saturday.

The twisters sheared roofs and walls from many buildings in Arkansas, flipped over vehicles and downed trees and power lines in Little Rock and large areas east and northeast of the state capital, officials said.

The blast of extreme spring weather swept much of the United States on Friday, menacing the nation’s midsection from Texas to the Great Lakes with thunderstorms and tornados.

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Saturday said there were five confirmed dead in the state.

“Right now, we have five confirmed fatalities. We have a couple of others that have been reported, but we do not have confirmation from local law enforcement on the ground. And, so, awaiting that. But right now, statewide, we have five confirmed fatalities,” she said.

Four of the Arkansas fatalities were reported in Wynne, about 100 miles (160 km) east of Little Rock, Cross County Coroner Eli Long said.

One person was killed and more than 50 people were hospitalized in North Little Rock, Pulaski County spokeswoman Madeline Roberts told the Washington Post.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Huckabee Sanders and the mayors of Little Rock and Wynne, the White House said in a statement. He also spoke with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell.

Biden also reached out to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, the White House added.

Huckabee Sanders said Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, in phone calls on Saturday, offered federal government support.

“Anything that Arkansas needs, they have assured us that those resources will be here and on the ground,” she said at a news conference.

In Belvidere, a city in northern Illinois, one person was killed and 28 were injured when extreme weather tore the roof off a theater during a heavy metal concert.

Belvidere Fire Chief Shawn Schadle said about 260 people were attending the concert at the city’s Apollo Theatre, which featured the headline act Morbid Angel as part of the group’s “Tour of Terror.”

Concertgoer Gabrielle Lewellyn told WTVO television that people took refuge in the basement when the roof came crashing down.

“They dragged someone out from the rubble. And I sat with him and I held his hand and I said everything is going to be OK. I didn’t really know much else what to do,” Lewellyn said.

In Sullivan County, Indiana, three people were killed, Indiana State Police Sergeant Matt Ames said. A state of emergency was declared for the affected areas, Sheriff Jason Bobbitt said on Facebook.

Fox News, citing Fox Weather, reported that a tornado killed a person in Madison County, Alabama, and another person died during a storm in Pontotoc County, Mississippi.

The turbulent weather occurred one week after a swarm of thunderstorms unleashed a deadly tornado that devastated the Mississippi town of Rolling Fork, destroying many of the community’s 400 homes and killing 26 people.

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