An outbreak of severe thunderstorms was expected to affect more than a dozen states on Friday, and reports of tornadoes began Friday afternoon.
A “tornado emergency” was issued mid-afternoon Friday for the Little Rock metro area as a confirmed “large and destructive tornado” was seen on the ground. A tornado emergency is issued when a serious threat to human life or catastrophic damage is imminent or in progress.
Videos and photos posted online showed damage to buildings in the Little Rock area.
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted, “Extensive damage has occurred in central Arkansas…Pray for all who were and remain in the path of this storm. Arkansans must continue to watch out for the weather as the storms continue to move.”
Several other tornado warnings were also issued in Arkansas, where residents were urged to take shelter in basements and interior rooms away from windows. A tornado warning was also issued in central Illinois near Peoria. A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been spotted or one is indicated on radar.
About 89 million people in at least 15 states – from Texas and Alabama in the south to as far north as Wisconsin and Michigan – are at risk from the “explosive” storms.
On Friday, two rare “high risk” areas of severe weather were issued by the Storm Prediction Center, one centered near Memphis and the other on the Iowa-Illinois border. This is the first time in more than two years that the SPC has issued a high risk.
A tornado watch — meaning weather conditions are favorable for tornadoes to form — has also been issued for much of the central United States, from Iowa to Arkansas.
The SPC said “an outbreak of dangerous severe weather is likely across much of the central states this afternoon through tonight. Strong to potentially severe long-track tornadoes are forecast for a wide area of the Mississippi Valley”.
Bob Larson, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, said “this storm has far-reaching effects and a number of different weather elements that will wreak havoc, and that will be the big story.”
Meanwhile, heavy snow and high winds are expected to bring blizzard conditions from the Dakotas to northern Michigan.
Here’s what you need to know about Friday’s weather:
Friday’s severe weather forecast: Mississippi braces for more
The storm hitting the Midwest and South will impact Mississippi, where tornadoes have killed 22 and injured dozens after tornadoes ripped through several towns last week.
Larson said he expected a “more powerful” storm this time around. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be worse in terms of tornado outbreaks, but I think there will be a bigger area affected than what we had last week,” Larson said.
“North and south, really in all directions, for several hundred miles away from the center of the storm, there will be a large area of high winds that can cause problems,” he added.
Locations including Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas; Oklahoma City; Saint Louis; and Chicago are expected to experience wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph throughout Friday, according to Larson.
On Friday evening, the storm will move east into Tennessee, including Memphis and Nashville. On Saturday it will move east from Ohio through all of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and part of New York State.
Some of those areas will be hit with wind gusts of 60 to 70 mph, Larson said.
The map shows where severe storms are most likely on Friday
Biden visits tornado-ravaged Mississippi town
President Joe Biden is visiting areas badly damaged by last week’s tornadoes on Friday. Rolling Fork and nearby Silver City, Mississippi lost about 300 homes and businesses, and hundreds more buildings were badly damaged.
President and First Lady Jill Biden will investigate damage from the tornado, meet with affected homeowners and first responders, and receive an operational briefing from federal and state officials.
They are expected to be joined by Gov. Tate Reeves, Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and Rep. Bennie Thompson.
Biden is expected to announce that the federal government will cover the full cost of state emergency measures for the next 30 days, including overtime for first responders and debris cleanup.
Is a tornado watch or warning worse? :What you need to know to prepare for these severe thunderstorms
Tornado Preparedness Tips
The National Weather Service says it’s always important to have a severe weather emergency plan in place, including designating a “safe spot” in your home, preferably away from windows and in a interior room. It is also recommended to keep supplies on hand such as flashlights, batteries, food, water, clothing and shoes.
The weather service also recommends having multiple ways to get updates, including push alerts, local TV reports, weather apps, and a NOAA weather radio.
“I think the No. 1 message people need to have is that they need to be prepared,” said Pam Knox, director of the University of Georgia Weather Network. “Don’t rely on exterior sirens as a warning. Instead, have a weather radio or smartphone handy.
“And know where you’re going if you hear a tornado warning,” she said.
US tornado season got off to a bad start
The United States has already experienced more than 300 tornadoes and 31 deaths in 2023.
With 311 tornadoes to date, according to data from the Storm Prediction Center, this is the third most active start to a year on record in the United States.
“We should be at around 200 tornadoes for today’s date,” Victor Gensini, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University, told USA TODAY on Thursday. “So we’re running about 100 tornadoes above average, and we’ve been that all year.”
LEARN MORE:Poor US tornado season set to get worse
United States Weather Watch and Warnings
Blizzard warning issued over Plains and upper Great Lakes
The same storm system is expected to produce a band of heavy snow, with possible blizzard conditions from the central plains to the upper Great Lakes region Friday through Saturday, Larson said.
The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning Friday afternoon through Saturday morning for a wide swath of South Dakota and neighboring states. An ice storm warning will be in effect for the area through Friday afternoon.
Some locations in South Dakota could pick up up to 20 inches of snow from the storm, the weather service said.
Around 2 to 4 inches of snow is expected in most other places, with winds blowing up to 55 mph.
“The power outages and tree damage are likely due to ice,” the weather service said. “Travel could be nearly impossible. Scattered blowing snow could significantly reduce visibility. Hazardous conditions could impact morning or evening commutes.”
The weather service has urged drivers who must travel to bring flashlights, food and water in case they get stuck.
More winter weather in the Northwest
Meanwhile, in parts of Oregon and Washington, a winter storm warning comes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday and will last through Sunday evening.
Snow accumulations could reach up to 48 inches at higher elevations in the Cascades, and winds are expected to reach 40 mph.
Map of winter storms
National Weather Radar
More coverage from USA TODAY
Contributor: Associated Press; Dinah Voyles Pulver, USA TODAY