UPDATED: Following tornado damage in Vilonia, a propane leak has closed Highway 64 near downtown. There are unconfirmed reports of fatalities near there.
UPDATED: Six fatalities have been reported in Faulkner County following a tornado that swept through Mayflower, Vilonia and other areas close by.
Arkansas highway officials say Interstate 40 in Faulkner County has reopened after it was briefly shut down because of debris from a suspected tornado that crossed the roadway.
The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department said traffic on eastbound and westbound Interstate 40 was closed Sunday night for a four-mile stretch in Faulkner County because of storm damage in Mayflower. It reopened later Sunday night.
Drivers are being asked to avoid the area. Images from television news showed overturned tractor-trailers and debris along the interstate.
The National Weather Service says a spotter reported seeing a tornado cross the interstate Sunday night as powerful storms hit parts of central Arkansas.
A tornado passed through Faulkner County Sunday evening, hitting several structures in Mayflower. Major debris has been reported by multiple sources, and trees and houses have been leveled.
More reports of damage being done in other parts of the county have been reported, including some other damage near Vilonia.
Damage in Vilonia is unclear, but unconfirmed reports are not encouraging.
Highway 64B is closed at the Harp’s grocery store about half a mile west of downtown Vilonia. Past there, a deputy said, “nobody without a badge and heavy ID is getting in.” This included a Faulkner County JP who was turned away.
More than two dozen state and local police cars and wreckers were passing through the roadblock headed toward downtown Vilonia.
There is a gas leak, said to be propane, somewhere east of the roadblock.
Outside of the Harp’s store a few employees were standing in the dark. They said that the store’s manager called and told employees to try and tell people in the store to get out and seek shelter. A couple customers were still in the store when the sirens started going off, and everybody got into a meat cooler. The lights went out, one of them said, and a few minutes later they heard the train-like sound of the tornado.
There was some superficial damage to the storefront, but the building seemed to be intact. Next door, the roof of a bank’s drive-through had been gutted by the wind. The employees said they’d heard that downtown Vilonia had been hit hard.
Several other unconfirmed reports and overheard conversations suggest serious damage to downtown Vilonia. At around 10:30 Jeff and Kathryn Piotrowski, storm-chasers for Weather Nation, pulled into the grocery store parking lot. They said the tornado was three-quarters of a mile to a mile wide, and was “a killer.”
Volunteers are staging at the Vilonia Primary School, where the cafeteria was filling with people carrying in food and water and bottles of iodine and bandages. There was a lot of uncertainty about the extent of the damage in Vilonia. Cell phones weren't working, and deputies were saying that emergency communication radios weren't working well.
Two deputies said they understood that the Black Oak Ranch Estates, a subdivision southwest of Vilonia hit hard by a tornado in 2011, again had severe damage, though they hadn't seen it themselves. "It took the same path," one of them said. "That's just awful."
We will update the story as more information becomes available.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.