SPRINGDALE, Ark. – The National Weather Service said an early morning thunderstorm spawned a tornado in Northwest Arkansas on Wednesday.
Shortly after 4 a.m. Central, a tornado touched down in the southern and the eastern portions of Springdale, causing significant damage. Initially the NWS estimated the damage to be consistent with an EF-2 tornado but confirmed Wednesday evening it was an EF-3.
Storm chaser Brian Emfinger of Live Storms Media said damage appears to have begun in the vicinity of the Northwest Arkansas Mall and continued northeast causing occasional significant damage to homes and businesses. One business was destroyed with parts of it flung onto a road 100 feet away. A cell tower was also taken down. Trees could be seen down in every direction.
Springdale Police Department Lt. Jeff Taylor said at least seven people have been injured, including two people with critical injuries. Peak winds hit 145 mph and the twister traveled for over five miles.
One of those injured was Javy Ortiz' uncle, who was inside a home damaged by the tornado.
"(My family) woke up to the storm, the whole place was moving," Ortiz told FOX Weather. "They looked out the window and my brother said he could see the tornado coming down. They took off running for the living room and that's when the trees crashed down."
While most of his family escaped, his uncle was pinned by a large tree.
"My neighbors helped get him out and rush him to the hospital," Ortiz said. His uncle suffered serious injuries including a collapsed lung and an injured chin. They were still anxiously awaiting an update on his condition.
Springdale is located about 10 miles north of Fayetteville.
"Our first responders have completed door-to-door searches," said Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse. "And we believe everyone has been accounted for. Many residents have been displaced from their homes and numerous businesses have reported significant damages. I have officially declared an emergency, which should trigger declarations at the county and state level."
A command center has been established at the Springdale Parks and Recreation Center.
Springdale elementary school destroyed in storm
The George Elementary School in Springdale, was damaged by the tornado. The school district said the gymnasium was destroyed and the kitchen and cafeteria were severely damaged.
The school district is closed Wednesday as maintenance staff assesses the damage in all buildings throughout the area.
"Thank you to the Springdale Police Department, the City of Springdale and the first responders who worked so quickly to serve our families," the district said in a Facebook post. "The outpouring of love and support from our community is what makes Springdale great."
Arkansas residents survey damage
Residents surveyed damage and debris after the tornado-warned storms swept through Johnson, a community south of Springdale.
FOX Weather Watcher Ashley McCutcheon posted video to Twitter showing the aftermath from her neighborhood. The NWS had warned of locally damaging wind gusts early Wednesday affecting eastern Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas.
Fayettleville resident Kaylie Crane said she got up and drove to see the damage in the southeast portion of Springdale.
"So many roads were blocked off … so scary and heartbreaking. Hoping everyone is okay," she posted on Facebook.
More debris was seen scatted around Springdale in video taken by Anel Mata on Twitter. She said they were planning to drive their friend to work "just to find out they’re definitely not working today."
NOAA's Storm Prediction Center has issued a Tornado Watch valid until 1 p.m. Central time for parts of Arkansas, northern Louisiana, southern Missouri, far southeastern Oklahoma, and northeastern and extreme East Texas. This watch area includes Little Rock in Arkansas, Shreveport in Louisiana and Longview in Texas.