Vilonia tornado kills 4; more severe weather in South tonight

The predictions for a Southern-style tornadogeddon this week are proving accurate as massive storms punched Arkansas last night. Now, the National Weather Service is warning the worst is still on tap for tonight.

Half a dozen twisters tore across the state Monday evening, some strong and long-lived. Want to know one way meteorologists detect these funnels of doom? Look at this radar image:

That pink-and-white area is what’s known as a “debris ball,” representing all the wood, glass, rubble and associated garbage picked up by a strong tornado. This debris ball happens to be from a huge twister that basically wiped part of the town of Vilonia from the map last night.

The community of roughly 3,800 people, located in Arkansas’ Faulkner County, lost at least four of its residents in the screaming storm. Spotters reported that the tornado was half-a-mile wide; it sent National Weather Service staffers in Little Rock fleeing for shelter and briefly leaving their operations suspended (the Memphis office took over warning-issuing duty).

When dawn broke, the town appeared to have taken a stomping from Godzilla. Houses were swept off their foundations and roofs were peeled off or missing. It looked less like real life than it did a scene from the video game The Sims. People who weathered that terrible night described it today in the Houston Chronicle:

Terina Atkins, a middle school librarian, said she and her family rode out the storm in their laundry room. Adkins said she heard a loud sucking noise and realized that air was being sucked out through the drain.
"We clogged up the sink and we could feel our ears popping," Atkins said.
Faulkner County spokesman Stephan Hawks said the infrastructure in and around Vilonia was badly damaged.
"One of the hardest hit things is the utilities. It tore down power lines for, gosh, I'd guess a mile or so. It snapped overhead poles like they were toothpicks. It's pretty devastating," Hawks said. "It was a heck of a little tornado.”

Here’s a video purporting to be the Vilonia tornado filmed in infrared. Haven’t seen it elsewhere so I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but boy that looks terrifying:

In northern Arkansas, four other people died after flash floods swept them (and in some cases, their cars) away. Water overran a levee in Poplar Bluff, Mo., leaving residents knee-deep in coffee-colored water. Widespread flooding along rivers has led the governors of Arkansas and Kentucky to declare states of emergency. Even people who live in houses built on 10-foot pilings are legging it for higher climes.

As bad as the totality of this carnage was, tonight will likely be worse for the South. The governmental Storm Prediction Center is giving a “high” risk for severe weather, especially in southern Arkansas, northwestern Louisiana, southeastern Oklahoma and northeastern Texas. “It cannot be stressed enough how big this next event could become,” say meteorologists at the Little Rock weather-service office.

The SPC has given the Mid-Atlantic region a “slight” risk of damaging storms on Thursday. Storm chasers might be dismayed at that milder threat in D.C.; I call it a blessing.