Officials: Storms, floods kill 5 in Arkansas

NOMAAN MERCHANT - Associated Press

Violent storms carved out a swatch of damage three miles wide Monday night in central Arkansas, leaving at least two residents of a small town dead, authorities said.

Three others were killed when floodwaters swept their vehicles off the road in the northwest corner of the state, authorities said.

The National Weather Service said it was extremely likely a tornado swept through Vilonia, where at least two people died, according to Arkansas Department of Emergency Management spokesman Tommy Jackson.

"The town's gone," Vilonia resident Sheldon Brock said outside a gas station a few miles outside of town.

Brock told The Associated Press he was standing in his front yard and watched storms pass over his home, leaving him and his family unscathed, while strong winds and a possible tornado destroyed homes and businesses and yanked down power lines. Heavy rains sent water from nearby creeks washing over their borders.

"We got lucky," Brock said.

Vilonia's fire chief, Keith Hillman, said 50 to 60 weren't accounted for, but he expected many simply weren't reachable. He said he didn't expect the death toll to rise significantly. Fire crews wrapped up work overnight and planned to resume early Tuesday morning.

Authorities closed roadways surrounding the central Arkansas town, some 25 miles north of Little Rock, and cautioned residents not to venture back with chainsaws to help clear the debris.

John Robinson, a meteorologist for the weather service in Little Rock, said it was likely a tornado hit Vilonia. He said tornadoes were also likely at the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, Ark., as well as in Garland and Polk counties.

"It wouldn't surprise me if it were 10 or 12 tornadoes," Robinson said.

Meanwhile, in northwestern Arkansas, emergency officials said three other people died after floodwaters swept their vehicles off the road.

In Madison County, emergency management coordinator Lori McConnell said a man and a woman died after floodwaters swept their car off the road. In neighboring Washington County, sheriff's spokesman Kelly Cantrell said a woman died when her car was swept off Arkansas 265 in the southern part of the county. The woman's 11-year-old son survived.

Consuelo Santillano, 38, of West Fork, tried to cross water flowing across the roadway when her minivan stalled, then entered the current. Santillano left her van, and her body was found 150 yards from her vehicle, Cantrell said.

The spokeswoman said the sheriff's office had performed more than 10 water rescues during the day — from homes and vehicles.

"It rained so hard and the water rose pretty quickly, it caught a lot of people off guard," Cantrell said. "When we were driving down of one of the state highways after the water had receded, sections of it were buckled up and the road was missing."

Gov. Mike Beebe declared a state of emergency, retroactive to April 19, when another series of violent storms moved through Arkansas. Beebe plans to tour affected areas after the extent of damage is better known after daybreak.